The 2017 Living Product Expo in Pittsburgh, PA, convened passionate advocates for healthy and sustainable materials for the third year in a row. A new feature of this year’s event was the “Rethink the Materials Paradigm” pitch competition for early-stage and emerging designers, as well as organizations of all sizes. Contestants presented to conference attendees and a panel of judges their innovative approaches to materials and manufacturing; the panel consisted of influential members of Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurial accelerator community:

  • Matthew Barron, Program Officer, Sustainability, The Heinz Endowments
  • Jay Douglass, COO, Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute (ARM)
  • Jeffrey McDaniel, Executive-in-Residence, Innovation Works
  • Connie Palucka, Managing Director, Regional Initiatives, Catalyst Connection

The judges looked for key components of a successful entrepreneurial pitch:

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  • The Need: Is there a legitimate need that is currently unfulfilled that the pitch addresses? What is its relevance to building towards a living future?
  • The Solution: How effective is the solution to address that need? Is it compelling, original, logical and visionary?
  • The Potential for Change:How feasible is the idea? Economically? Technology-wise? How can it be scaled up? How can it inspire others?
  • The Style: Tom Robbins said it well: “The mere presence of content is not enough. It is style that gives content the capacity to absorb us, to move us. It is style that makes us care.” Here, the judges looked for powerful imagery, effectiveness of information design on slides, and the presenter’s eloquence and enthusiasm.

Three innovative pitches from passionate materials advocates attempted to address all of this in under 10 minutes. Michael Simpson, Division Manager at City of Los Angeles, LA Sanitation, presented “No time for waste: recycling waste streams for temporary housing,” an idea to process LA Sanitation’s collected waste and water to create materials for tiny homes that could serve as temporary housing for the city’s homeless population, as well as disaster relief housing during natural disasters. Ashley Mariani from PittMoss, a Pittsburgh-area based manufacturer, shared “Disrupting Dirt: A Gardening Revolution”, that featured PittMoss’ growing substrate made from recycled fibers that outperforms conventional peat moss and prevents further depletion of carbon-rich peatlands, which is an increasing contributor to global climate change. Avoiding the destruction of peatlands made another appearance at this year’s Expo, in opening keynote Paul Hawken’s manifesto Project Drawdown as the #13 best solution to drawing down carbon emissions.

The trusses at the Festival Foods Grocery Store in Madison, WI. The store includes almost 40 tons of urban ash trees that were harvested during the City of Madison’s ongoing campaign against the invasive Emerald Ash Borer. Photo courtesy of WholeTrees

The judges praised all of the pitches highly for fully embodying the competition criteria, but they ultimately named “Why Trees are Stronger than Wood” by Michaela Harms from WholeTrees Structures as the competition winner. The Wisconsin-based company forms a critical supply chain link between healthy forest management and high-value, sustainable construction markets through their extensive research and use of the superior strength of round timbers for structural systems.

Currently, a vast majority of our woodlands are undermanaged, requiring culling to restore and revitalize their health. Unfortunately, due to suppressed pulp prices, these cull trees are losing value, reducing incentives to implement management practices. This increases forest fire risk, disease and redevelopment, and leaves an identified high-value building component underutilized. WholeTrees’ ability to create elegant biophilic solutions to structural integrity issues in construction while generating economic, environmental and community benefits for State and National forests and communities received high praise from the judges.

Michaela Harms, as both the Research + Development Programs Manager and Engineer at WholeTrees Structures, showed her passion and vision for her work both on and off stage throughout the Expo. She communicated how WholeTrees products promote wellness for the public through healthier buildings, provide strength comparable to other structural systems while restoring woodlands, and reconnect built space with the inspiration of the natural environment. Recalling her education in Sustainable Building Engineering in Finland as inspiration for her passion for natural building, Harms continues to find avenues for expansion for WholeTrees’ products and services, including a Red List Free Declare label from ILFI.

WholeTrees teamed up with Vermont solar installer SunCommon to create round timber solar carports at Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Co. Photo courtesy of WholeTrees

“WholeTrees loves being a part of the events and conferences hosted by the ILFI. Their events attract thought leaders and authentic innovators that challenge our perspectives and keep us inspired to stay on the cutting edge of holistic sustainability. Each event sends us home full of excitement and motivation to continue our nature-based mission by directly linking us to clients and colleagues that support beneficial change in business to support environment and community,” Harms said.

As another key Drawdown solution that both sequesters carbon and avoids emissions resulting from cement and steel production, WholeTrees’ structural components captured attendees’ imagination at the Expo. ILFI is proud to award Michaela Harms and WholeTrees with its Pitch Competition Award and continue on our journey to Living Product Challenge certification for WholeTrees Structural Components.

Written By

Alex Co

Alex splits his time between supporting the Living Product Challenge and coordinating the Pittsburgh Living Product Hub, working with manufacturers to envision and create products that give back more than they take, in the Pittsburgh region and beyond.