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Bradenton-based startup looks to add a primary building material

Disruptive-minded startup tackles construction industry supply, cost and environmental challenges with something new: bamboo.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. March 11, 2022
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Mixon Fruit Farms co-owners Janet and Dean Mixon. The farm has a little more than 10 acres of bamboo planted mainly for the fruit. (File photo)
Mixon Fruit Farms co-owners Janet and Dean Mixon. The farm has a little more than 10 acres of bamboo planted mainly for the fruit. (File photo)
  • Manatee-Sarasota
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Bamboo isn’t just for pandas anymore. Proof is in a small local startup working to change how bamboo is used in Florida, starting with building materials. 

Bradenton-based Rizome first started manufacturing bamboo as a primary building material in the Philippines, where 25,000 acres of bamboo was planted. Russell Smith, CEO and co-founder, says the company needed to get the process down before spending the money to get the bamboo starts shipped here. 

Now the company is bringing the knowledge it learned to Florida, starting with a testing area in Hendry County in 2020. Within the first 12-14 months, the bamboo stalks there had reached 40 feet high. Since that proved successful, Rizome is working on a larger scale testing of 100 acres right now. Then, later this year, the company will expand it to 300-400 acres. Company officials say one acre of bamboo produces the same amount of timber as 10 acres of trees — making bamboo a cost-efficient alternative for a host of builders and related entities. 

The company’s overall goal is an ambitious one: to market bamboo as a primary building material. “It’s strong like steel,” Smith says, “and tough as concrete. It has all the elements that should be a primary material.” 

Within that goal, it's also not afraid to think big, as company officials predict, if its marketing and customer education efforts bear fruit, it could generate $400 million in revenue per year and provide hundreds of jobs.

The bamboo will be locally produced for the Florida market. Since Smith says there isn’t a whole lot of wood available in the area, the bamboo could also make an impact on the supply chain issues the construction industry is facing. 

Courtesy. Rizome is planting asper, a type of bamboo, in Hendry County.
Courtesy. Rizome is planting asper, a type of bamboo, in Hendry County.

In the company’s current stage, it’s hard to compare price points between current building materials and what the bamboo materials will cost. But Rizome has been producing cabinets, fencing and wall panels through three partners — One Tree Planted, ClimateCare and Rizome's sister company Bamboo Living — and those have all been competitively priced. “It has the potential to be competitive,” he says. 

Rizome began testing the waters, or Floridian soil, around two years ago. There are thousands of bamboo species, but Smith says the species the company is focused on has the potential to reach 50-100 feet. 

After doing the math, Smith says about 150 metric tons of usable plywood can be produced in a single acre each year. Additionally that fiber can produce up to $3,750 per acre per year. “That’s a high revenue stream,” Smith says. 

Rizome's projected revenue model is twofold: it sells bamboo building materials to wholesale and original equipment manufacturers as well as carbon credits to companies using the nature-based offsets as a way to lower their carbon footprint. 

To get to that point with bamboo plywood, Rizome has a partnership business model with farmers and landowners. The partnership gives Rizome the ability to plant bamboo plants without actually owning the land. In addition, the company maintains exclusive access to the mature plants. 

"It’s strong like steel and tough as concrete." — Russell Smith, Rizome

If the startup can get enough farmers to partner with, Rizome will build an oriented strand board facility to manufacture the bamboo into materials. That's where the company says it can grow into the hundreds of millions in revenue to support the job growth. Currently, the team, based out of a corporate office in east Manatee County, consists of a six-person executive board. 


Becoming certified

Around 25 years ago, the original founder of Rizome, David Sands, marveled over how much wood was needed to build a home. The amount of supplies he had to ship from the mainland to Hawaii, where he was located, wasn’t feasible. So he turned to bamboo. 

Sands took the bamboo through a seven-year process to meet international building code standards in order to receive the structural certification from the International Code Council Evaluation Services. In 2004, the bamboo was certified. 

Then, in 2013, the company, Bamboo Living, moved to make a bigger impact using bamboo as plywood. Thus the creation of its sister company Rizome and where Russell Smith became involved. Rizome pays homage to the root system of bamboo, called rhizome. It’s the part that’s planted underground that can last for 100 years. 

Bamboo Living, also known as Bamboo Technologies, is based in Hawaii. It manufactures entire bamboo buildings through Bamboo Hardwoods Vietnam (BHVN), a subsidiary in Vietnam. BHVN purchases bamboo construction materials from Rizome at market rate, according to Rizome's Start Engine investment campaign.

Rizome has used the campaign on Start Engine, an investment-funding site where Shark Tank TV host and businessman Kevin O’Leary is a strategic advisor, to raise capital, seeking up to $3.93 million. Its raised $725,000 so far on Start Engine, in addition to over $1.06 million raised from crowdfunding and other sources. Its Start Engine portfolio puts the company's valuation at $32.8 million. 

Just like Sands, Smith is going the certification route, which is needed to market the bamboo plywood. Currently, Rizome is building its case to receive the certification, which Smith says could be another year or so after more bamboo has been planted, harvested and manufactured. 

“It’s timely and takes quite a bit of capital,” he says, “but it’s well worth the time and money.” The testing alone can require an investment of $500,000. That’s not even including the manufacturing side of the business. 


Farm aid 

Rizome's timing could be spot-on. Florida’s citrus industry has been on a sharp decline for almost two decades as a result of citrus greening, Hurricane Irma and other factors. In response, one orange grove, Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton, took the Rizome route: In May 2016, the owners of Mixon Fruit Farms, Janet and Dean Mixon, became the first farmers in Florida to plant edible asper bamboo where citrus trees formerly grew.

The Mixons planted 2.5 acres of bamboo in 2016, and have since increased their crop to eight additional acres. 

"Citrus was doing so bad," says Dean Mixon, noting that while bamboo hasn't made up for profits, it has been an overall better experience. Every week, they're able to pick between 400 and 800 pounds.

Originally, the bamboo was going to be used strictly for the fruit. But now, Dean says they're tweaking that tune. Of the 2.5 acres they planted five years ago, some will be harvested for the fruit. But the rest will be used for structural and laminate purposes. Still, Dean says they're two years off before they get to that point. 


Look ahead

Rizome’s immediate goal is to expand to 20,000 acres of bamboo. And the big-picture goal is 100,000 acres in the state.

But also acknowledges how difficult it may be to convince farmers to make a change. “Change is a complex equation for farmers,” he says, adding there’s a lot of risk that goes hand-in-hand with it. 

Rizome is working to mitigate that risk by proving to farmers the company knows how to plant, what species to plant and that it’s possible to mechanically harvest the crop so that it’s financially doable. They’re in the process now of planting and figuring out the logistics before presenting it to farmers.

After the manufacturing process, bamboo is made to look similar to other woods used in building. (Courtesy photo)
After the manufacturing process, bamboo is made to look similar to other woods used in building. (Courtesy photo)

It’s a more show, less tell approach. “We have to put our own skin in the game and demonstrate,” Smith says.

Part of the process, Smith has learned, includes creating a specialized soil, as bamboo will grow in Florida’s sandy soil, but won’t thrive. Later this year, in partnership with a local citrus farmer, they will plant around 400 acres of bamboo. The purpose of starting with one acre and moving up to 100 and then 400 acres is to show growth in a step function. 

The company also hopes to do some good for the environment. Bamboo provides a natural carbon sequestration where the plant absorbs carbon dioxide into its poles. Bamboo can sequester up to 400 tons per acre planted. Additionally, the carbon is locked into the poles when it’s cut and stays in there as it's transformed into a building material. 

Each year, the company will harvest 20-30% of the crop to produce building materials. By the next year that percent of the crop will have grown back, but is left to become stronger for a couple of years as the rest of the crop is harvested. 

“It’s a virtuous cycle,” Smith says. “When we harvest those poles, that carbon gets locked in that building,” he says, noting the average bamboo-built home lasts up to 100 years. 

Smith says it will probably cost around $2,000 to $4,000 to get the soil and compost prepared, the bamboo planted and matured within a single acre. Using a house size calculation of 2,261 square feet, Smith says 18,088 board feet and 12,436-square-feet of sheathing would be needed to build that house. 

“Bamboo is native,” he says. “It was consumed but never re-planted so we’re restoring a lost material.” 


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