Kebony raises $34M to make sustainable softwood behave like hardwood, using food waste

 Kebony raises $34M to make sustainable softwood behave like hardwood, using food waste

It’s fairly simply: Softwood grows a lot faster — in “sustainable” forests — than hardwood. The latter is often found in bio-diverse old-growth forests like, um, the Amazon. So if you could make softwood behave like hardwood, you’d not only access more sustainable wood for construction, you’d also protect hardwood forests from destruction. Plus, you save a lot of GHG emissions.

That’s the reasoning behind what Kebony, has come up with. Billing itself as a “wood modification technology company”, Kebony has now raised a €30 million ($34 million) funding round led by Jolt Capital and Lightrock. And how it does this is fascinating.

Kebony starts with sustainably harvested wood, then modifies that wood with waste coming from the food production process associated with sugarcane and corncobs. The company says this can give the wood a long-lasting character which actually mirrors the behavior and characteristics of tropical hardwoods.

Of course, as the construction industry increasingly looks for greener construction materials, using this type of material makes a lot of sense, not to mention the fact that it might well reduce tropical deforestation.

Kebony claims this treatment transforms wood like pine into a wood with features that are “comparable, and in some cases superior, to those of precious tropical hardwoods.” It also says the process is superior to traditional wood treatment based on impregnation with wood preservatives.

Jolt Capital and Lightrock are joined by previous shareholders Goran, MVP, FPIM, PMV and Investinor, of which the latter two will remain represented on the board.

Kebony’s core markets are Europe and the U.S., where it plans to expand. The European timber market is worth in the region of €3 billion for the residential and non-residential construction industries.

Norman Willemsen, chief executive officer of Kebony, said: “Kebony produces the most beautiful and ecological wood on the market, with a superior quality that is both environmentally friendly and cost-effective.”

Kebony founders: Norman Willemsen (CEO) and Thomas Vanholme (CFO)

Kebony founders: Norman Willemsen (CEO) and Thomas Vanholme (CFO). Image Credits: Kebony

Antoine Trannoy, managing partner at Jolt Capital, commented: “At Jolt Capital we have a strong interest in material science companies which leverage their patented technologies to offer sustainable products. With over 20 years of R&D in woodtech and a well-proven process that gives cultivated soft woods the desirable properties of hard tropical ones, Kebony is one of them.”

Kevin Bone, partner at Lightrock added: “Kebony is perfectly positioned in the race for a decarbonized world with an ambition to be the leader within wood modification technologies.”

Kebony says it reported revenue growth of 23% in the first half of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020, with a strong positive EBITDA.

Speaking to me over a call Willemsen explained: “What we do actually is we impregnate the wood and put it in an autoclave. This changes the cell walls of the wood structure permanently and gives it a permanently changed character which actually lengthens the lifetime of the wood.”

Yes, but how scalable is it all?, I asked.

“It’s actually very scalable,” he said. “We have two operations up and running right now. We’ve got basically a blueprint to scale it up further.”

He said compared to traditional materials, such as concrete and steel, their carbon footprint is “significantly less. We have emissions of about 350 kilos, co2 per cubic metre. If we compare this to, for example, steel, or the traditional hardwoods, those are around 10,000 kilos. So we’re a very small portion of those other materials.”

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