#98 Troy Carter, Co-Founder at RIZOME

Troy Carter is a co-founder at RIZOME, and is bringing the audacious scale and vision of startup methodology to the planet’s ecological and climate crisis. He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in economics, was an early employee at Airbnb and E la Carte, then founded and scaled Troy Cider and exited after a successful acquisition in 2015. He has focused on carbon finance and renewable energy and agriculture projects for the last six years. He is now supporting RIZOME to grow into a globally significant climate-positive building materials and carbon sequestration company.

Bigger Than Us Episode 98

This transcription has been lightly edited for readability.

Host Raj Daniels  02:27

Troy, can you give an overview of what RIZOME is?

Troy Carter  02:36

So I’m a co-founder at RIZOME, and RIZOME is a company that is pioneering a couple of things. First, we manufacture bamboo engineered lumber and bamboo engineered lumber is a climate positive building material, that the more you build with it, the better the ecological impact. And so bamboo is regenerative on many levels. But one of the main reasons is carbon sequestration. And that when you harvest it and put carbon into the built environment that helps solve the climate crisis. And the second part is doing large scale bamboo agroforestry and native reforestation. And so we are working in the Philippines throughout Southeast Asia, have a project operation on Florida now, and have plans for expanding around equatorial regions throughout the world.

Host Raj Daniels  03:27

So what kind of products do you actually manufacture?

Troy Carter  03:29

We basically make plywood and one of the—so how is it made? So we essentially take really, really large species of bamboo you know, these are dendrocalamus asper and giganteus. They can be 10 to 12 inches across, really thick walls. And we plane a four-sided longboard out of each pole. And we glue these small boards into pretty much any structural building products that you can imagine. plywood, and in the future we’ll be making engineered lumber for modern mass timber, which is really large pieces of cross-laminated timber or laminated veneer lumber that go into tall mass timber buildings.

Host Raj Daniels  04:16

How many kinds of bamboo are there?

Troy Carter  04:18

There’s a lot. Tens of thousands of different species. But for structural building applications, there’s only a few that are really useful. One of the things RIZOME is also doing is optimizing for size and growth rate. And this is something that hasn’t ever really been done before. Bamboo has always been used as, you know, chopsticks and toothpicks and cutting boards more recently, things like flooring, and we’re taking this material that’s super strong, two and a half times the strength to weight ratio is steel, very fire-resistant, so it’s got a class a fire rating for all the architects out there designing buildings with exposed beams. It’s an amazing material for that, and also super durable so you can walk on it. So it’s an amazing material. And there’s only a few species that we can actually use that big enough to make it cost-competitive with wood.

That’s the major inflection point that we’re at right now, where bamboo is actually becoming cheaper than wood and is a technically superior material.

Host Raj Daniels  05:21

And how did you come up with the idea for this company?

Troy Carter  05:24

Well, it definitely wasn’t my idea. I mean, architects, designers, engineers, forestry people, you know, we’ve known about bamboo for a long time, and it has a long history of construction used in China, you still see skyscrapers with bamboo scaffolding and Hong Kong, and all through South and Southeast Asia. It’s a very common building material. Our innovation has really been bringing round pole bamboo construction that’s often used for you know, sort of like, cottage industry, you know, low-end housing or rural construction use and bring it to a globalized market. And there are a few reasons for that.

One is we’re making dimensionalized products, we’re making plywood and inputs into larger engineered lumber, also hybrid bamboo panels. And it’s essentially modernizing the bamboo industry so that farmers, indigenous people have markets that they can actually sell their bamboo into and accelerate this as a regenerative economy.

How I got into it. It’s a great question. So I’ve known the rest of the RIZOME team six or seven years, and throughout that time, I’ve been working actively with the question, how do I make a positive impact on climate and the ecological crisis that’s facing our planet? It’s such a big issue and it’s so complex and many, many different layers from the human layer of how we operate to the systems layer of how we produce energy and how we build, and economic layers of economic justice and incentives towards particularly in marginalized or lower developed countries. And bamboo addresses the climate crisis, ecological restoration, and economic justice in a way that few other projects can. And so that was one of the reasons why I have committed so much time to making bamboo a global construction material so that it can be a legitimate and scalable and use for a really great plant that is highly complementary, particularly in uses agroforestry.

Host Raj Daniels  07:57

You know, it’s interesting, you mentioned scaffolding, I remember my first trip to India, which was in the 90s. I was shocked, surprised, and sometimes concerned with the amount of bamboo scaffolding I saw on buildings over there. You know, we’re used to in here in the West seeing metal scaffolding, you know, you walk downtown New York, Dallas, you see metal scaffolding, you feel relatively safe walking underneath it just because you’ve grown up with it. But in India, you know, you see these bamboo poles or just look like they’re tied together with twine or some other kind of, you know, tying material. And you see people that are climbing up these scaffoldings with bricks and tossing tools up and down, and it looks really good. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s absolutely concerning. So I can envision some of the, you know, uses that you mentioned during the explanations. I appreciate that.

Troy Carter  08:42

Yeah. And just to chime in on that. That’s one of the major image problems, a reason why bamboo has not gotten farther, to actually compete more easily with wood. It’s really an image problem, you know, underdeveloped companies or countries from the global south doing unsafe practices using an unproven material. This is the image that bamboo has often. And that’s actually just completely wrong. It’s a highly technical material, particularly when it’s dimensionalized way superior technical characteristics to wood, highly refined engineering. And that’s the level of sophistication and sort of like Western quality methodology that we’re bringing. So it’s actually a turnkey solution for anyone building in sort of like modern US or European cities.

Host Raj Daniels  09:30

That’s an interesting point. Sometimes, you know, what we’re used to and what we see how those two things collide in our mind and we try to, we conflate what might be safe and what’s not the name, RIZOME. Where does that come from?

Troy Carter  09:42

So the rhizome is a biological term for the root structure of grasses and bamboo is a grass. It’s a super tall grass. You know, we use bamboo that’s 120 feet tall. And the rhizome is the biological reason why it’s such a regenerative building material. And essentially, it grows really fast. It gets to size maturity, within seven years to harvest and then every year you can harvest a third of the plant. And when you cut down a comb, it grows right back within 18 months to full size. And so that super, super-fast growth rate at least 10 times the growth rate of trees. And because it has 10 times the growth rate of trees, that means it also has 10 times the carbon sequestration potential. And so yeah, rhizome is this big energy storage system that then just continues to shoot up new sprouts. And we love that metaphor for our company as well.

Host Raj Daniels  10:49

So you mentioned growing and from my understanding and reading, bamboo has some really unique growing properties, I’d say I know there’s always an example of you know, bamboo plants and the patience people should have. And in some cases, I’ve read that it can grow up to four feet in 24 hours, but can you explain the growing cycle of bamboo.

Troy Carter  11:11

Totally. So, bamboo is very easy to grow. And we only grow clumping species of bamboo not running species. So when we plant a new plant of bamboo, it doesn’t become an invasive plant that would outcompete native forests, for example.

So what we do, we take a branch cutting or a node, so every foot or so there’s a node, which little branches come out, and we take that and we put it in a nursery pot or in the ground, and it grows very quickly, within three years. A dendrocalamus giganteus, this plant can be 120 feet tall, multiple combs at full size from six to 12 inches across, and compare that to a three-year-old douglas fir that’s about the size of a pencil and maybe four feet tall. So it’s just a totally different order of magnitude of growth, and that that sustains for about a decade.

So over the first 10 years, it’s this massive, massive growth rate. And after about 10 years, it essentially hits the status of climax forest where there’s actually no more sunlight that it can capture. So then it starts leveling off its growth rate. One of the ways in which we solve this to continue very high carbon sequestration rates, and high utilization rates, and biomass production for building materials is just a harvest. It actually thrives in being harvested. So the more we harvest about a third of the clump every year, the faster it grows, so we can actually maintain a very, very efficient carbon drawdown source and building material that is, it’s almost like it’s designed for human use. Unlike trees, that actually when you cut them down, the entire ecosystem collapses right you cut down a really big tree, of which we actually don’t have so many left, right? There are very few old trees left in the world, but you cut down a big tree, the soil dies, the plants around, suffer from erosion. It’s a really big deal. And actually, many of the advantages of using wood in terms of carbon sequestration, bamboo just does a lot better.

Host Raj Daniels  13:26

So, you might not be able to answer this question, but I want to ask it anyway. What is the relationship between, especially in Asian culture, bamboo and good luck?

Troy Carter  13:36

Yeah. I mean, bamboo has a long history, in many cultures, primarily throughout Asia, Southeast Asia, where we’re based in the Philippines, and also on the island of Mindanao. The bamboo plant is considered the origin of humanity were the original man and woman came out of a bit of bamboo shoot. So it has you know, has a very deep, I would say like symbiotic relationship with human beings and with the cultural significance. So, you know, in our work with indigenous populations, which is actually where most of our bamboo is planted in the Philippines. It’s a sacred plant that we have, a special relationship with as humans.

And I think that sort of relationship is one that we are constantly in, I would say constantly in conversation but also in like in consideration like, can we build a scalable construction industry with a sacred plant revered by indigenous people? Sometimes it’s contradictory, and we’re trying to do it in a really good way to the best of our ability. I have a lot of different perspectives on the pace of development in the world, but we may as well use a material that has a positive ecological benefit than using trees, or particular steel or concrete, that pretty much across the board has is a catastrophe. Right? It has a really detrimental effect on our ecosystem. And only now is it becoming a mainstream realization that oh, actually, you know, climate change is real. And it’s having real impacts on the health and well being of human beings as well as many other species. So that’s part of our motivation is to bring humanity back in the right relationship. And this is one avenue for that.

Host Raj Daniels  15:35

If you’re open to sharing, I would love to hear some of your perspectives regarding the pace of development in the world.

Troy Carter  15:45

That’s a good question. So maybe I won’t necessarily answer that question. I think it’s, it’s a really deep and big question. But one thing that I can say is that we need to be creating beautiful buildings rather than just functional buildings. If we can use a material that is both more beautiful, it makes people feel really good in the building. And is a biological material that people have a direct emotional and sense of connection with. That’s a good thing. And more and more, I think we’ve—yeah, maybe just about the future like what is the future of a city that we can really love? And that is a different sort of mobility where people have walkable cities that are human scale, where our senses can be alive within a city environment where the sounds and light and materials that are used are really appropriate for humans and also for other animals. That’s one role that bamboo can play. And some of the buildings that we’ve done concept, render have are just gorgeous, like, wow, I would actually want to spend the day indoors in a building like this.

So maybe just the perspective of humans as creating beautiful structures, beautiful cities where people are actually really happy. That’s the vision that I want to work on.

Host Raj Daniels  17:21

So you mentioned RIZOME has building products. Are there any plans to move into other products like furniture for example?

Troy Carter 17:29

We sell to furniture makers. Bamboo panels are pretty standard input into furniture into flooring and to cabinet making as a beautiful hardwood alternative that’s much cheaper and much more sustainable. Like you can’t just go buy tropical mahogany anymore, because it’s all gone. You know you go to Indonesia, go to the Philippines go to India. There are logging moratoriums, or there’s just simply no trees left and that’s, you know, that’s it’s hard to imagine unless you’ve seen it, that there are just literally no trees left in many countries, sub Saharan Africa. And it turns out that the places where bamboo grows the best are usually in these regions where there’s been almost 100% deforestation. So we have a really great opportunity to both support local economies in developing regions and also restore ecological balance with bamboo agroforestry and also native reforestation.

Are we making other products? Yeah, so we’re essentially as RIZOME optimizing the manufacturing process and the growing process for bamboo and then making an input into a trillion-dollar construction industry and interior furnishing industry. So we’re making the inputs, panels, boards, and you know, dimensional lumber like two by sixes. Right now we’re pretty much exclusively making panels which, you know, for the common person, just plywood like half-inch plywood. And pretty much every building in the modern world has pieces of plywood in it.

Host Raj Daniels  19:12

So you sound like a very thoughtful individual. Earlier in the conversation, you mentioned you were thinking about why to join RIZOME? Why to be a part of RIZOME? You mentioned impact being important to you. The crux of our conversation is the why behind what you do. So let’s unravel that a little bit. Why is making an impact important to you and why RIZOME?

Troy Carter  19:38

So I’m going to take the question a little bit differently. I don’t know why making an impact is important to me. It comes from an inner call that we all have, and we all make an impact in our own way. And this is just a particular flavor of that. But there’s something particular about working on climate and large scale ecological restoration that has been a beautiful journey for me in that because it’s a really big problem. Like it’s, you know, it’s clearly one of the major themes of this decade. How do we address climate change on a global level? And that has attracted some of the best collaborators, employees, funders, customers, where everyone realizes we’re actually in this together. We are on the same team, even if we’re competitors, and that level of collaborative spirit and motivation, passion, and competence, like, we can hire really, really brilliant people. And, and being able to work with highly competent, passionate, heart-centered brilliant people is just a total gift. And that’s both within our team but also just in all of the people that we talk to working on climate and working on an issue. That is this significant can open doors.

So I highly recommend anyone with the leaning towards working in a climate-related business or addressing ecological restoration. There’s a lot of support for you like you will be able to have a very successful career, you’ll be able to make a lot of money and you’ll be able to be surrounded by people that you really love working with. And so it’s been a total gift to work in this area.

…it’s clearly one of the major themes of this decade. How do we address climate change on a global level? And that has attracted some of the best collaborators, employees, funders, customers, where everyone realizes we’re actually in this together.

Host Raj Daniels  21:34

You mentioned everyone having a calling, and I agree with you. As my role as an interviewer, it’s my job to push just a little bit harder. You mentioned your calling, and you had the courage to follow it. What does that courage come from?

Troy Carter  21:48

Great question. I don’t know. I mean, I tend to think that we like all human beings are highly capable. And I don’t actually know that I necessarily believe that I like I don’t have particularly more courage than anyone else. I grew up in a stable household in a highly developed country, in the US with a whole lot of privileged circumstances that has a lot that has given me the choice to work on something that I want, rather than just fight for survival in a job that I may or may not agree with as part of my highest calling. So I think one level is privilege. You know, also privilege of education. You know, I went to Stanford, I worked at some great tech companies. I’ve been supported in pretty much every step of my life in a way that not everyone has that advantage. So, yeah, I don’t chalk it up to courage. I chalk it up to privilege and I’m very grateful for that privilege and hopefully use it the best that I can.

So, yeah, I don’t chalk it up to courage. I chalk it up to privilege and I’m very grateful for that privilege and hopefully use it the best that I can.

Host Raj Daniels  23:00

Troy, I really appreciate you sharing that. And I think that that’s a really a profound statement, especially in the time we’re in right now regarding recognizing some of the privileges that we have, you know, you and I can sit here and talk about this and share ideas. And we have to keep in mind that not everyone can do so. So I really, really appreciate that from the bottom of my heart.

Troy Carter  23:19

And that’s part of the mission of a company like this. It’s not just, you know, the western white savior coming in and saving indigenous people and giving them opportunities or something like that. But there’s a level of responsibility for people with money, for regulators, for politicians, for business people to say, you know, what can I do that’s actually good in the world? And it turns out most of the things that we can do that are actually good in the world, there is a strong financial case for as well. So like, I don’t see it as a zero-sum game, there’s a lot of opportunities to be able to give our gifts and it’s very fulfilling.

…it turns out most of the things that we can do that are actually good in the world, there is a strong financial case for as well.

Host Raj Daniels  23:58

Totally agree. So, switching gears. With RIZOME now for several years, what would you say is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about yourself on your journey?

Troy Carter  24:10

Yeah, it’s a great question. I don’t know about the most valuable but some of the things that I’ve witnessed in myself is basically like where I thrive, where I feel energized, where I feel really, really motivated to continue working and moments when I don’t. And one of the reasons why I can stay motivated in something that is sometimes frustrating or slower, you know, it’s a manufacturing company, dealing with technical manufacturing problems and very complex, political and legal relationships and you know, the building industry goes slower than I would like to see in transforming and all of these, all these things that could seem like problems.

One of the ways in which I feel motivated is by feeling this sense of integrity, that what we are doing is sort of like the best that we can do. You know, we’re trying to do something good. We’re trying to establish whatever, building systems that are good for everybody. We’re actually no one loses in the system. And that feels like a really good. I mean, it feels like integrity to do that. So, and in tech, that level of integrity is challenging to find in many you know, I’ve worked at other companies before and, and it’s almost always been a compromise. I wouldn’t say that RIZOME is strictly like, yes, we have it solved. We’re on the evolutionary edge of business and doing everything right. I think that’s clearly not the case. But at least we’re doing our best. And that’s a pretty, like, that’s a pretty good thing. So I just appreciate the integrity that I’ve been able to find within myself to be able to go and you know, share on podcasts that. Yeah, I’m proud of what I’m doing and I believe in it.

Host Raj Daniels  26:09

You mentioned helping people you mentioned integrity. You mentioned being the best at, you know what you can do. What would you like to be famous for?

Troy Carter  26:17

Wow. I mean, whatever. I don’t know about fame yet. But clearly, I’m on a podcast and so I’m not averse to having my voice heard. So what would I want to be famous as?  What is the core message that people should hear when they look up to famous people, whether that’s celebrities or politicians or sports stars or like people that they respect entrepreneurs? And I think the core message is is almost always about care or love or just feeling the feeling the love for the planet feeling in allyship and friendship with other human beings, feeling love for other species, really enjoying life and realizing that it doesn’t have to be hard. And, and to have a to have a famous person that can hold that perspective would be a total gift to me. I don’t I don’t think I necessarily grew up with a lot of idols or role models who displayed a level of competence and integrity. And but like, you know, a really high level person that was getting stuff done in the world, where they also displayed a level of heart that was obvious. That was as obvious as their business success, for example. And I think that’s really important, and now I have more role models. But I think that I mean, if that was a standard, that would be amazing.

Host Raj Daniels  27:56

That would be amazing. You mentioned love for the planet you mentioned ally ship 2025. What does the future hold for RIZOME?

Troy Carter  28:06

Well, by 2025 will have, let’s say, will have expanded significantly throughout Southeast Asia. That means—so the process we’re in right now is just on this sort of like business success side, we’ll have established the first sort of full scale model for a really sophisticated manufacturing operation for bamboo structural materials, that is much cheaper and much higher quality than anything that currently exists. And the goal by 2050 is expanding that replicable model 1000 times around the world, so 1000 processing facilities, a million Hector’s of bamboo under cultivation, and that would be about a 10 gigaton CO2 impact by 2050. And that’s about 1% of anthropogenic carbon emissions. So that’s a really big number. If we can do that, I would be like, Yeah, that’s a great success. Even if we miss it by 50%, like, wow, that’s a big success.

So in five years, we’d better be well on our way of doing that. We will have planted bamboo and native forest, all around equatorial regions, made partnerships with local partners in places like Ethiopia, in Ghana, and Kenya, and Mexico, and, you know, East Timor, and Indonesia and Vietnam and throughout India, and that each of these regions, that would say, seven to 10 years down the line, these plantations will come online for harvesting and manufacturing building materials that will be used locally. So that regions like India, it’s going to see a massive population increase and massive building, that they can do that with a regenerative climate friendly material, rather than building concrete buildings, which will cause some climate thresholds that we really don’t want to hit.

Host Raj Daniels  29:58

You painted a beautiful vision and I look forward to seeing it come to fruition. Last question, if you could share some advice or words of wisdom with the audience, what would it be?

Troy Carter  30:09

So I was just thinking about what words of wisdom would I want to hear? And I mean, the biggest feeling to me that is important is belonging. The fact that there are other people out there that care about me and that care really deeply about me want to see me succeed personally, but also want me to, to see me fulfill my purpose, fulfill my expression in the world, and live really well. And so there’s, there’s a way in which I just think American culture because I’m part of American culture, in which deep allyship and friendship have sort of turned like it’s a little bit turn to networking or turn to a level of cultural and social isolation that it isn’t connected with what’s really important often so people feel lonely. And, you know, if if you feel lonely, I’d say there’s like, there’s, there’s a beautiful possibility waiting for you. And I think it particularly comes when you start working on things that are really important to you.

For me when I work in an area, like climate, working on this, you know, working on RIZOME, I connect with a lot of people that you know, I’ve grown to care and love. And so I don’t know that that’s a piece of advice, but that finding your community, finding your group of allies and friends and finding your purpose, it’s totally possible. Actually a mentor of mine once said this to me, “you know, by the time you have found your community, you will be well on your way to having a lot of fun.” And so for me even more than the climate impact or even more than an ideological vision of how the world should be to follow the principle of what is deeply nourishing and fun, and that is as accurate a guidance system, as anything that you could imagine is good for the world.

Actually a mentor of mine once said this to me, “you know, by the time you have found your community, you will be well on your way to having a lot of fun.” And so for me even more than the climate impact or even more than an ideological vision of how the world should be to follow the principle of what is deeply nourishing and fun, and that is as accurate a guidance system, as anything that you could imagine is good for the world.

Host Raj Daniels  32:28

That’s great advice. Listeners, go out and find your community. 

Troy Carter  32:32

Find your fun.

Host Raj Daniels  32:34

There you go or your fun. I’ve so enjoyed speaking with you. Is there anything I should have asked you that I did not.

Troy Carter  32:40

You know, I can’t think of anything. I really enjoyed the conversation. I enjoyed the opportunity. I enjoyed the sense of care that you brought to the conversation and also just the opportunity to have the story of bamboo, the story of RIZOME spread to more people. And so, just to say, we’re always very open to collaboration, whether you’re an architect or designer or a funder or developer, or whatever, whatever category that you feel like would be, you have a hit on collaboration, reach out.

www.rizomeco.com

Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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Raj Daniels