Woodcache PBC

Is Woody Biomass Burial a Disruptive Innovation?


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The Let’s Own This! Foundation helps individuals, families, households and friends reduce their carbon footprint over time. Wood Cache PBC buries wastewood at scale in order to keep millions of tons of carbon dioxide out of the environment.

Many years ago in business school I had the distinct privilege of participating in Clayton Christensen’s inaugural “Managing Innovation” course. He had written The Innovator’s Dilemma but it had not yet topped the bestseller charts. At the end of every class I staggered out of the room, mind blown. So many counterintuitive but completely sound ideas! They have influenced me every day since.

He talked a lot about disruptive innovations and how we need to think broadly about what a innovations and technology are. He argued that part of the definition of disruptive innovation is bringing existing technologies to new markets. One favorite example was the evolution of the mainframe computer, to the mini-computer, to the micro (desktop) computer. Although there certainly were technical changes along this path, the BIG disruption was the audience. What started in the realm of scientific institutions became accessible to businesses, and then consumers. Almost no computer manufacturers were able to make the jump from mainframe to mini to micro (desktop) because they were locked in to a set of customers that kept telling the manufacturers what THEY wanted, not what the new markets wanted. By the time the manufacturers woke up, the new, larger, more lucrative markets were already claimed by new players.

What about wastewood as a product? The first “market” for wastewood is decomposition, used by microbes and insects and animals. The first human market for wastewood is burning, first in open fires in distributed environments (think kitchen hearth, etc), and later in industrial use. Wastewood has generally been disrupted out of industrial burning and replaced by fossil fuels, which has allowed forests in many (but not all) parts of the world to rejuvenate. In parallel, “merchantable” wood has evolved as a building material, but I think of this as a complementary product, not the product in question.

Today wastewood, in some parts of the world at least, is a product in desperate search of a market. The evidence is in the fuels buildup in forests over the last 100 years in the American West. For lack of better alternatives, the current market is to burn the wood in slashpiles. In other words, the best market use of wastewood right now is to destroy the inventory! Of course, a significant side effect is to create billions of tons of CO2 in the environment each year.

Some other markets are emerging, like the manufacture of biochar, or jet fuel, or compost production. It is difficult, however, to envision how the full supply of wastewood will be consumed by these technologies.

Enter Woody Biomass Burial (WBB). The new market consists of responsible parties that want to offset the carbon dioxide produced in their business and personal operations. Pair this with the product, wastewood which is manufactured by trees that pulls carbon dioxide out of the air and stores it in trunks, branches and roots.

Current harvesters and users of wastewood have difficulty perceiving Woody Biomass Burial as a wastewood market for a couple of reasons. The first is unfamiliarity. The idea that corporations would buy buried wastewood is foreign to them, and almost laughable on the surface. Yet, there they are. The existence of a new market for an established product is undeniable.

The second hindrance is the failure to recognize that preserving the wastewood is a legitimate use of the product. Somehow burying the wood feels even worse than burning it in a slashpile. Keeping the carbon dioxide out of the environment somehow feels like a waste of a perfectly good resource.

Finally, there may also be a transmission problem. The distance between dead tree to corporates buying carbon credits is vast, and includes multiple layers of “finishing.” Starting from the tree, the landholder, the harvester, the burier, the regulator, the market-maker and the buyer all need to play a role. All the participants in this chain have slightly different views about best and highest use of wastewood. Eventually they all need to agree that WBB is a legitimate market.

So yes, I believe the answer is yes. On the grounds of introducing an existing product to a new and potentially voracious market, WBB is a disruptive innovation.

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