5 Minutes with Ehab Sayed
Mark discusses Ehab’s vision for the business as it moves from R&D stage to manufacturing
Sustainability and the creation of a circular economy are, quite rightly, hot topics from within the world of building materials and construction.
In a bit of a coup for us, our Head of Building Products & Construction, Mark Goldsmith, recently sat down with the Founder of bio-manufacturing business BIOHM, Ehab Sayed. He was keen to understand more about Ehab’s vision for the business as it moves from R&D stage to manufacturing. Here’s what they discussed:
Mark: Having watched your YouTube clip via your LinkedIn page, you speak with clarity and almost tangible passion about the technology and range of products you’re looking to take to market. How did your vision come about and what is the premise to the products being created?
Ehab: I’m an Egyptian who grew up in British schools in Qatar. I grew up in the midst of cultures with opposing views when it came to social equity, economic growth, poverty and our impact, as a species, on the natural world and biodiversity. I spent two years travelling around the world before coming to the UK for university and have lived amongst some of the poorest and most heavily impacted communities by our current global economy. I found myself becoming acclimatised to the site of plastic rivers, plastic mountains, plastic islands and plastic reefs and unbothered by toxic levels of air pollution. During my travels, I spent much of my time escaping the physical manifestations of our impact on the planet and immersed myself in nature on long treks where I simply observed nature’s genius unfold before me. I brought these experiences with me to university in the UK and ensured that all of my projects were addressing the impact of the world we have built and taking inspiration from the world that we have left behind – the natural world. With billions of years of evolution, refinement and optimisation, nature has found some extraordinary ways to build highly efficient, elegant and effective organisms and ecosystems from which we can extract principles and processes that can be applied to solve some of the most pressing challenges we are facing. During my Masters degree at Brunel University, a year long research project on the construction industry’s waste streams, resulted in the development of Triagomy, an interlocking construction system inspired by the way carbon molecules bind to one another to create circular buildings that can be deconstructed and reconstructed at any stage of their life. When I founded Biohm and started to develop the system further, I found that there was a much larger problem in the industry that is a major contributor to the plastic crisis, fuelling the climate crisis. Construction materials use extraordinary amounts of energy in production, contain significant levels of embodied carbon, contribute to the introduction of toxins and harmful chemicals and, most importantly, are not designed or developed with an end-of-life solution in mind. That is when I decided to pivot towards material development, pausing the development of Triagomy, and bringing on board some exceptional designers, engineers and scientists to embark on an exciting journey that would result in regenerative materials for the construction industry. As the most problematic and heavily used materials in industry appeared to be insulation, sheet materials and structural materials, such as concrete, they became our main areas of focus. We have now developed a completely natural mycelium or mushroom-based grown insulation, which is out-performing almost everything on the market and is currently being scaled for large-scale production; a sheet material made out of food and agricultural waste, due to be on the market in 2021; and we are working towards a plant-based concrete, which is due to be commercialised within the next 2-3 years.
Mark: It is fair to suggest that other manufacturers who have attempted to develop more sustainable building materials have hit a brick wall when it comes to costs. How are you combatting this?
Ehab: As we are utilising nature’s genius in the development and production of our materials, we do not rely on forceful, energy-hungry or labour-intensive processes during production. Our mycelium insulation is grown, which means that the living organism does the majority of the work, naturally engineering advanced insulation panels, whilst consuming carbon and waste. We develop and evolve all of our own mycelium strains using non-intrusive and non-GMO natural processes that take place all around us in nature. We are, therefore, able to evolve our strains, encouraging them to grow faster for example and train them to consume a variety of waste streams. Although we will be growing our mycelium insulation on organic waste in our initial stages of production, we have also developed strains that are capable of consuming plastic - which was quite the revelation! We have won the Waitrose and Partners’ Plan Plastic Prize in 2019 to develop this technology further and the rate of plastic degradation that we are currently achieving is quite significant. Our materials are, therefore, not just sustainable, they are in fact regenerative – meaning that they have a positive impact on the environment allowing us to take leaps in healing the planet at a time of climate-crisis. As sustainability in construction is usually perceived to be a premium, we were determined to ensure that our materials became mainstream and affordable so that we are able to target social housing and building projects that need it the most. At our initial modest production scale of around 20 homes worth of insulation per month, where we will be consuming around 40 tonnes of waste and around 5 tonnes of carbon (equivalent to 3,200 trees) per month, our starting price will be around £25-30 per sqm. Although this is at the higher end, given our very small scale of production, the environmental impact and community profit-share embedded in production, it is more than justifiable. Over the next 2 years, we will be scaling our production capacity six-fold in the same facility, bringing the price per sqm down to around £10.
Mark: By the look of it, BIOHM is enjoying plenty of exposure from the likes of the BBC and Guardian. Construction, as an industry, is deemed to be sometimes stuck in tradition and doesn’t always welcome disruptive technologies openly. Within the markets you have already introduced the concept to, what has been the overriding response and how have you combatted any nervousness?
Ehab: It is important to note that the current economic and political climate compounded with the growing awareness of the climate crisis we are in have resulted in a slight shift in perceptions within the industry, which for the construction industry is quite a significant step. Biohm is engaged with some of the largest multinationals in construction as well as smaller scale architecture firms and builders and the overriding response is overwhelmingly positive. This is especially the case due to the results of the tests that we have carried out on our materials against industry standards, proving that natural materials can indeed out-perform the synthetic materials that we rely on, whilst ensuring healthy indoor qualities and a positive environmental impact. Building regulations and standards becoming more stringent have also contributed to increasing concerns regarding the use of conventional materials. There is a serious appetite for innovation in construction, which is fantastic to see and very much needed. Taking inspiration from nature in the way we operate, set up our business model and spark relationships with industry players allows us to align our collective motives and incentives and match the industry’s stakeholders’ needs with our offerings.
Mark: Much of your website points towards the technology, and primarily mycelium, being used to develop insulation. By the sound of it the technology can be used in wider structural aspects of buildings. Do you envisage this being a potential game changer for the materials used in housing and how can it affect pricing?
Ehab: The construction industry is overdue a revolution. A revolution in thought, perception, approach, practices, building methods and materials. At Biohm, we are utilising nature’s genius to transform the way we perceive buildings, the materials and methods we use to create them and the business models that are implemented to spark a biorevolution. Biomimetics, or nature-inspired design and engineering, cannot only be applied to materials and products but to the way we think and the way we run our businesses and economies. It is a school of thought that can enable more ethical and considerate practices in construction that take a more holistic approach to doing business. That is precisely why we are challenging and disrupting standards, regulations, finance mechanisms and business models as well as developing ground-breaking technologies. We appreciate that new, innovative and, particularly, sustainable technologies are often limited to high-end and one-off commercial projects and higher profit margins are welcome when one has spent years raising capital and needs to show significant returns to shareholders. However, high-end products and premium materials will not reverse the climate crisis nor have the regenerative large-scale impact that we so desperately need in the industry. That can only be achieved when we see such innovations implemented in social housing and becoming the norm. Therefore, Biohm has been self-funded since inception and is currently raising investment for the first time through select investors and philanthropists who are extremely value-aligned – equitably valuing environmental, social and economic returns. Delivering our technologies to market through collaborative biomanufacturing with communities, allowing us to scale rapidly and distribute profits equitably, was critical for us to achieve collective and considerate economic growth – enabling communities to regenerate themselves and grow with us. The potential and applications for our technologies in construction are endless and most importantly, we are proving that we can truly implement regenerative materials without compromising cost or performance. This directly influences the advancement of building regulations, standards and environmental targets. It is essential to carry our philosophy beyond our technologies and through to all aspects of our business. A multidimensional approach that not only focuses on environmental regeneration and physical resource flows but also on social equity and the flow of finances is key for a transformation to take place and a new economy to emerge.
Mark: And you’ve been working closely with the BBA on your insulation product. What feedback have you had from them in terms of ratings and the properties of your early prototypes, especially given the stigma attached to natural material products performance?
Ehab: Accreditation is one of the most daunting steps for bio-tech start-ups as construction industry standards have been created for conventional and usually synthetic materials. This means that when commercialising a highly innovative, particularly bio-based, material that is completely new to the industry, it can be very difficult to find an appropriate standard to test it against. Writing a new standard is prohibitively costly, especially for start-ups and small companies. This is a significant barrier that we must collectively address within the industry in order to encourage the adoption of new natural materials. There is certainly a stigma associated with natural materials and the common perception within construction is that natural materials will simply never out-perform synthetic alternatives. This myth can only be debunked with more case studies and examples of natural materials in the industry. Luckily, with BBA’s support, we found a standard that was compatible with our mycelium insulation and have started the accreditation process earlier this year. Initial tests for thermal conductivity showed that we were achieving values as low as 0.024W/m.K, which not only competes with the most premium synthetic insulation but out-performs almost all insulation products on the market. When testing for VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) which are emitted by materials throughout their life and can be toxic and carcinogenic, heavily impacting indoor air quality, we scored A+, which, according to BBA, is the highest they have seen a construction material score. Our mycelium insulation emits virtually no VOCs. When undergoing the first phase of fire testing, which measures the material’s heat of combustibility, we achieved 16MJ/kg which means that a fire would spread around 1.5-2.5 times slower in a building that uses mycelium insulation when compared to any other insulation product on the market. Despite, the stigma, the results speak louder than words and prove that we can create healthy natural homes that are highly energy efficient. BBA have been very supportive throughout the process, which is fantastic as the accreditation process is not very easy to navigate.
Mark: And finally, you’re in the throes of getting your new Somerset plant ready for production. With the majority of your leadership team based from London, why Somerset?
Ehab: As we are championing a new way of doing business and championing a nature-inspired economy, it was very important for us to set up our production facilities in geographical locations that are in need of regeneration and have abundant agricultural, food and/or other industrial by-products and waste streams. Watchet, West Somerset, is a beautiful harbour town that has a 250 year old heritage of paper recycling. In 2015, the economic heart of the town, a papermill known as ‘the family’, which supported the town and the local community in various ways, shut down and took with it the majority of the town’s workforce. Watchet now has the lowest social mobility in the UK and is a perfect example of a community that has lost out on the prevailing economic system. The same system that is, arguably, the driving force behind the climate crisis. Therefore, when the Onion Collective, a Watchet-based female-led social enterprise at the vanguard of community business reached out to Biohm seeking a new industry for their town, it was simply the perfect marriage. We have now been working with the Onion Collective for a couple of years and have, together, raised almost £600k in grant-funding to further develop our plastic consuming mycelium strains, develop this new business and economic development model and set up our first biomanufacturing facility. The facility will offer an ongoing profit share on all materials produced there, which will be re-invested in the community to restore local social equity, regenerate the local infrastructure and support local entrepreneurship and education. Working alongside the community in Watchet is always a very emotional and incredibly gratifying experience. Start-up advisors and seasoned entrepreneurs have advised against taking such an altruistic and militantly sustainable approach at such an early stage. However, the pandemic has shown us how much resilience we have built within our business by working only with local resources and having the support of the local community - our supply-chain spans a maximum of 60miles. The pandemic has also shown us how vulnerable isolated and small communities are in the current economic climate further affirming the need for change. We are due to set up our second biomanufatcuring facility in Newcastle with the YMCA and have been invited by local authorities, governments and organisations to set up more facilities around the globe. Striving for change and baldly challenging social, economic and business norms, with nature inspiring our every move, has led us to a growth hack that is enabling us to scale rapidly, maximise our impact, revolutionise an industry and regenerate communities along the way.