Mount Vernon's Booshoot: growing bamboo for the loo
Mount Vernon-based Booshoot recently landed a deal with Kimberly-Clark to work on developing a mass-market toilet paper using 20 percent bamboo fiber.
Seattle Times business reporter
BooshootJackie Heinricher, founder, president and CEO
What it does: Grows bamboo and other hard-to-propagate plants such as wasabi
Revenues: Between $1 million and $10 million annually
Size: 78 employees
MOUNT VERNON — Jackie Heinricher, Booshoot's founder and CEO, took a deep breath as she walked into a greenhouse full of hundreds of bamboo plants.
The fast-growing bamboo plants pump out more oxygen than trees do, and this concentrated atmosphere makes people smile, she said, so "when this is full, we bring clients in here."
Buttering up visitors with oxygen has helped Booshoot land clients such as Home Depot, Costco and, most recently Kimberly-Clark, the world's largest tissue manufacturer.
Kimberly-Clark recently announced an agreement to work with Mount Vernon-based Booshoot to develop a mass-market toilet paper using 20 percent bamboo fiber.
Booshoot already produces about 10 million bamboo plants annually and earlier this year signed an exclusive three-year contract to sell ornamental bamboo in Home Depot stores across the nation.
After more than a decade of research, Heinricher and her team of scientists have created an advanced tissue culture system to produce genetically identical bamboo plants at a commercial scale. This new technology has positioned them to infiltrate the forestry market.
"Even if bamboo penetrates just a small fraction of that, it is a multibillion-dollar opportunity," said Pettus Randall, chief operating officer of Booshoot.
However, breaking into the market for paper products will be challenging.
"As a whole, the industry is very resistant to taking the first, risky step," said William McKean, a longtime pulp and paper engineering professor at the University of Washington. If one company makes the initial investment, such as creating a bamboo plantation, and demonstrates the product's success, others might jump on board, he said.
"Once somebody is successful, then other parts of the industry tend to follow," McKean said. Executives at Booshoot certainly hope so.
"We see tons of opportunity with this discrete deal, but really this is accelerating a lot of conversations with big players and big markets," Randall said.
Kimberly-Clark already sells toilet paper with 10 percent bamboo fiber in the U.K. but wants Booshoot for the U.S. market.
"We've got to create a viable supply-chain model for bamboo in North America because the bamboo that they are using in the U.K. is the bamboo imported from China," said Suhas Apte, vice president of global sustainability for Kimberly-Clark. "That is not a long-term solution."
Booshoot's secret sauce
Heinricher spends a lot of time in the Southeast, where there are 30 million acres of industrial pine plantations that supply a large part of the U.S. pulp and paper industry.
The Southeast would also be the best place to grow bamboo in the U.S. because of its warmer temperatures and rainfall. She also visits "Paper Valley" in Wisconsin, where major paper companies have operations.
Heinricher often finds she must educate paper companies about the benefits of using bamboo as an alternative fiber.
Upfront costs for bamboo plants are higher than for trees, she said. However, over a 10-year period, bamboo can produce up to 10 times more material per acre than slower-growing southern pine, now used by many paper mills. Bamboo can also be processed using the same paper-mill equipment as trees.
Bamboo does the planet a favor by removing four times more carbon dioxide than an equivalent amount of trees does, and it produces up to three times more oxygen, according to Booshoot.
Bamboo fibers are also long as opposed to short, which adds strength to products such as toilet paper.
Kimberly-Clark will most likely be working with bamboo known as Moso, which is 6 to 8 inches in diameter and grows well in the Southeast.
For Kimberly-Clark, the Booshoot agreement is part of a larger sustainability initiative.
Last year, the company used 750,000 metric tons of wood fiber from natural forests, but it's pledged to cut that in half by 2025.
The common practice of importing bamboo from China also causes unnecessary emissions and costs, Heinricher said. This could be avoided by using her company's techniques.
"We pretty much lead the world in this technology," she said. "We took an old science and created a new science."
Although running bamboos can spread quickly through their roots, many species of bamboo are in short supply because they only flower and produce seeds every 60 to 120 years.
Now Heinricher can multiply bamboo in days. She takes a sliver of bamboo and puts it in a secret sauce of natural compounds, which causes it to grow so it can be redivided numerous times. She then introduces hormones that create roots. Next, the bamboo plants are put in soil and placed in the greenhouse. Booshoot ships the bamboo plants once they are 18 to 24 inches tall, which is 5 to 6 months old.
Bamboo has been a part of Heinricher's life since childhood — she planted bamboo for her first Brownie Girl Scout project.
After working as an Army nurse, she traveled around Asia for a year and saw all types of bamboo. Later she earned a graduate degree in biology at Tennessee Tech University and, after settling down in Anacortes, began experimenting with bamboo — including edible bamboo-shoot chips.
Through simple plant division, she couldn't produce enough bamboo plants for wholesale. But then, her clump of 20 or 30 Chilean bamboo stalks flowered, and she germinated and planted 10,000 seeds. She collected the 10,000 bamboo plants and took five years to sell them.
She also became fixated on producing bamboo more quickly.
By 2011, she and her team of scientists developed the technology that allowed them to produce bamboo plants at a much larger commercial scale.
With the new technology, they could produce tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of bamboo plants, she said.
Besides bamboo, the company grows other crops, such as wasabi and cabbage, that are hard to propagate. It currently has 24 acres for its products and aims to have large bamboo plantations for forestry planted this year.
Booshoot has been beefing up its executive team to accomplish its planned expansion. Among the new additions is chief business officer Brian Finrow, who was previously a lawyer at Cooley, a law firm where he advised venture capital firms and technology companies. Finrow said he considered Booshoot's prospects as a venture capitalist would.
He looked for a huge opportunity and a protectable uniqueness.
"This is two orders of magnitude bigger than anything I've seen in the last 10 years," he said.
Johanna Somers: 206-464-3714 or firstname.lastname@example.org