Transforming wood into steel for a net-zero building industry

Tim Boitouzet
10 min readApr 30, 2023

Woodoo is laying the foundations for supertall timber buildings

How will we avert the construction materials crisis?

One becomes an architect for a single reason: to make history. For my five years as a full-time architect, I lived that dream, co-designing prize-winning landmarks with Nobel laureates like the Rolex Learning Center with Kazuyo Sejima, the Longchamp Racecourse with Dominique Perrault, or the National Library of Israel with Herzog & de Meuron. These are some of the world’s most iconic contemporary buildings that will stand for centuries.

Many elements of being an architect were fulfilling, but I soon learned something about this work that I couldn’t shake: humanity has spent millennia developing an industry that is now killing us, and we have only 20 years to overhaul it or suffer significant environmental and human consequences.

Producing steel, cement and glass — the literal building blocks of our built environment — emits over ⅕ of global greenhouse gasses. Rapid urbanization and population increase will only intensify the industry’s impact, driving a construction boom of supertall buildings and a raw materials bottleneck that will increase emissions and cost levels. Buildings already consume 40% of all energy use in the world of which 2/3 is due to materials manufacturing. Digging up new resources could satisfy this demand, but would just extend the environmental damage. An impending supply crunch could drive unattainable pricing for building materials, just as higher living standards globally were coming into reach for much of the non-legacy world.

Understanding these dynamics firsthand was my climate wake-up call. As I looked to the way the world was heading, my choice was clear and echoed what had brought me to architecture. This truly appeared to me like a lifetime mission. In the five years I’d been an architect, I’d become certain that I wanted to spend my life figuring out how we’ll be able to build for the next five hundred. Today, building things that last means you have to build them differently.

To reinvent this industry from scratch, I set out with the following pillars:

  • Cost: Zero green premium — a price point for the mass market including the developing world
  • Supply: Flexible technology that can use regional and locally sourced materials
  • Performance: Light and strong, passing all building regulations
  • Carbon: A net-negative carbon material, drawing down more greenhouse gases than it consumes with a positive impact on all elements of environmental stewardship
  • Execution: A standardized material — fast to build, reproducible, and predictable to work with
  • Adoption: Zero behavior change required for industry professionals and easy to integrate in construction systems

To find a solution that met all these parameters, I would need new training. I leapt from architecture to chemistry to invent the materials needed to build a desirable future. I enrolled at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where I collaborated with top minds at the forefront of architecture, as well as with the Whitesides lab in Chemistry and the Holbrook lab in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Moving forward, I also stretched to MIT Media Lab and the Wyss Institute to access new technological resources. Countless experiments and failures later, I had developed a blueprint for a revolutionary material innovation that could help combat climate change while meeting the demanding requirements of the construction industry.

I founded Woodoo in 2017 to bring this innovation to scale. Woodoo has built a biotechnology platform to create net-negative carbon building materials that are as strong as metal, but at the cost of wood. We’ve hit the ground running. Our team of chemists, materials scientists, engineers and sales folks is already delivering products to beachhead customers in the luxury and automotive sectors, proving we can satisfy high-performance material specifications. To power our next phase of growth, we’ve raised $31M in venture capital and non-dilutive funding led by Lowercarbon Capital. We are on our way to make wood the material of the 21st century.

If this resonates with you, please join us — we’re hiring!

Fixing the antiquated, fragmented trillion dollar construction industry

Having worked with a broad swath of materials as an architect for many years, I intuited that a technology based on wood might meet all the requirements, as a cheap, regenerative carbon trap with the right base of physical characteristics. But, it was missing one critical characteristic for modern construction: the high strength needed for use in the supertall city structures.

I had specialized in timber construction during my training as an architect in Japan more than a decade ago, so I had a practitioner’s lived experience of working with wood and an entrepreneur’s drive to innovate. I knew that to beat concrete and steel, I couldn’t just use your ordinary backyard tree.

Fortunately, we live in a moment in construction history where industrialized timber construction, engineered wood and material science can converge to address both the housing and climate crisis. Beyond this technological basis, building code evolutions have started and governmental trends unrolling ahead of us blow in our sails.

We and our investors see a market opportunity over $1 trillion and the potential to sequester over 10 gigatons of carbon per year.

A forestry sector in crisis

Our forests are under attack. The expansion of agriculture is responsible for over 80% of deforestation, limiting our access to high-quality timber for buildings.

Climate change is worsening these effects, threatening 1/3 of trees. Repeated droughts have progressively degraded our forests, presenting existential risk to certain species like beech, birch, pine and aspen. In the US, rising average temperatures are creating cascading effects: pushing northward the devastating yellow bark beetles, driving intense forest fires, disturbing watersheds, destroying habitats. Degraded forests equals massively reduced carbon storage.

Humanity’s welfare is interlinked with the forests we rely on, and that is nowhere more apparent than its ties to our economy: 6.5 million forestry jobs disappeared in the past decade, equivalent to the entire population of Finland.

Pacific Crest Trail forest (California) devastated by yellow bark beetles

Building tall with timber

Supertall buildings are needed. Building faster, cheaper, taller, stronger net-zero buildings is the way forward, but traditional wood has not been able to get the job done so far: it’s simply not strong enough to achieve building outcomes while fulfilling cost and environmental requirements.

Our technology

Woodoo technology leverages 420 millions years of nature’s engineering. Wood has two main components, lignin and cellulose, intertwined into an array of cells filled with air. While cellulose stands as the material’s scaffold, lignin is the “glue” between fibers. Some properties of lignin worsen its use as a building material:

  • Lignin creates only weak bonds with cellulose, leading to poor mechanical properties
  • Lignin is food for insects and termites, leading to degradation
  • Lignin weakens with humidity and UV

Removing lignin selectively without compromising wood’s architecture — not unlike the childhood game of Operation — enables transformational opportunities. With lignin-free wood, we have space to work with a material’s cellular structure, and we can create new kinds of materials that are weatherproof, more resistant to fire, and of extraordinary mechanical strength similar to that of metal. For example, we can add a custom bio-based filler to push out air which lends much of the combustibility in traditional wood. Woodoo’s process is highly technical, and we’ve already filed for dozens of patents worldwide.

As a separate benefit, the extracted lignin can be upcycled as a byproduct and fragmented into benzene, xylene, toluene — the fundamental components of today’s petrochemicals — and used as bio-based substitute components.

When multiple materials fuse and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, we call these “composite materials.” These super materials are a recent scientific breakthrough and now enable the creation of bulletproof vests, spacesuits, unmanned vehicles, and more.

Composite materials provide game-changing benefits over their traditional counterparts. The central challenge is to ensure their manufacturing processes are highly scalable and they can be cheaper than the incumbent materials they aim to replace. At Woodoo, these are the considerations we’ve designed in from the get-go and which we revisit at every decision point.

Has a composite material ever disrupted an entire industry by replacing a structural commodity material?

To decide whether to embark on this entrepreneurial journey, I knew I must answer this fundamental question. The answer is yes, and in a remarkably short period of time.

Between 2000 and 2010, carbon fiber composite revolutionized the commercial aviation sector by claiming over 50% of the market share previously held by aluminum. This shift is even more impressive considering that the global aerospace composite industry is now valued at over $34 billion today.

So, what led to this dramatic change? Simply put, carbon fiber composite is lighter, boasts a higher strength-to-weight ratio, has greater resistance to fatigue and corrosion, offers enhanced thermal stability, and is easier and faster to maintain than aluminum. In short, it performs better.

Here at Woodoo, we aspire to replicate this remarkable success in the building sector, while we slash costs and emissions as a cherry on top.

The strength of metal at the cost of wood

Steel is 15× more expensive than wood. We upgrade porous, weak and low-cost wood species — such as pine, aspen, and poplar — into advanced materials with very attractive unit economics. These are the fastest-growing wood species, storing the most embodied carbon in the market.

Additionally, Woodoo can give a second life to diseased or dead wood, volumes of which are skyrocketing due to the impact of climate change on the forestry sector (some species’ mortality rate could reach 90% in the coming decades).

Our material technology features an astoundingly low carbon footprint. Per kilogram of material, Solid by Woodoo features 0.06 kg CO2e compared with 14 kg CO2e for construction-grade aluminum and 9.8 kg CO2e for steel. The way to swift adoption and swift climate action is not just parity, but truly excellent performance. This is our north star.

Supercharging nature’s best: a new era for industrialized construction

The construction industry is being pushed by supply conditions and regulation alike to build cheaper, faster, denser, and less emissions intensive. New technologies and approaches will be required to address this, driving better outcomes for projects with significantly reduced time to completion, vastly improved cost and schedule certainty, and sequencing to maximize value and reduce risks.

As a technology enabler, Woodoo unlocks ultra-high mass timber buildings:

  • Cost: Cheaper than traditional structural construction materials. Reduced form factor to free more floor plan than conventional steel.
  • Supply: Low-grade, diseased or dead wood upgrade, no pressure on natural resources at scale.
  • Performance: High strength-to-weight ratio, 1200 kg/m3 with a minimum of 250MPa flexural strength.
  • Carbon: Footprint 229x lower than construction aluminum. Recyclable and reusable building components. Extends the carbon cycle within the building core.
  • Execution: Workable. Easy. Reliable. Versatile.
  • Adoption: Integrable in Cross-Laminated Timber and Laminated Veneer Lumber construction systems for customers that have an already skilled workforce and alternative to replace or combine with steel, using the right material where it is most useful.

Super materials platform technology

We have built a powerful platform that transforms traditional wood into a variety of super-materials. To test and prove out our platform, we have developed two novel materials that we are selling in lower-volume but high-margin use cases as decarbonized materials substitutes in the luxury apparel and automotive markets. Our world-leading teams in materials science and bioengineering have enabled us to commercialize our technology from grams to tons in just 3 years.

The ability to produce and sell real products at the early stages is a major advantage to our business: it not only confirms demand for our platform’s products, but also it allows us to generate early revenue. As we grow in size and access our target economics with scaled production, we will land at mass market pricing and unlock the scale we need to revolutionize this industry.

Woodoo’s team, culture and values

Woodoo is a team of passionate individuals working relentlessly to build a net-zero future. Woodoo’s core asset is our diverse team of exceptional engineers and PhDs in chemistry, optics, AI, and materials science; seasoned industrialists; business squads; and dedicated operations builders. Our team comes from many backgrounds and training areas, but they’re united on Woodoo’s core values.

Our core values

  • Respect: We listen attentively and humbly. We encourage all to voice their opinions and empower them to act boldly.
  • Optimism: We embrace the possible with a positive outlook and a bias toward action. We are doers.
  • Challenge: Difficult tasks fuel us. We approach obstacles proactively, persistently, and see them as opportunities for growth.
  • Teamwork: Collaboration is at the heart of our success. We foster a culture of clear communication, adaptability, trust, and accountability.

Climbing Everest together

Every generation rebuilds the world. At Woodoo, we believe our generation’s mission is far greater: to prevent the world from unraveling.

The building sector has done things the exact same way for millennia and has been relatively untouched by radically new technologies that represent huge wins for everyone in the industry. Woodoo is humbled to lead this wave of building materials innovation and form deep partnerships with architects and designers, builders and materials companies, and everyone in between.

There has never been more urgency to work on climate challenges. We feel extremely grateful to be a part of this historical moment of global transformation.

Woodoo is growing rapidly and entering commercial deployment. We seek like-minded individuals who feel creating better, cheaper, faster solutions for climate change is a core mission. The time to act is now. Join us.

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