Events & Media

Eco-Entrepreneurship Team Wins $75,000 in National Business Competition
Charborn's business plan calls for marketing water-saving biochar soil amendments to agriculture

February 12, 2015

Contact Niles Brinton
Contact Debbie Pierce

Santa Barbara, CA –Bren School alumni Niles Brinton and Debbie Pierce (both MESM 2014) are in Washington, D.C. yesterday to be recognized for winning the 2014 Barrett Foundation Business Concept Challenge. The victory earned the team a $75,000 cash award to invest in their start-up company, Charborn. The partners developed their business model while participating in the Eco-Entrepreneurship focus within the Bren School master’s curriculum. Their business objective is to connect producers of biochar soil amendment, which is made from forest litter and other timber waste, with farmers who can use the product to boost production and save water.

Winning team: Barrett business competition winners Debbie Pierce and Niles Brinton (center and center right) join (from right) foundation director and former Intel CEO Craig Barrett, National Forest Service Deputy Chief Leslie Wilson, and National Forest Foundation President Bill Possiel at the awards event.

Some 27 applications were received for the competition from around the nation, and 8 were selected for the final round. The runner-up team received $25,000.

The annual business-concept competition awards “the best entrepreneurial approaches that solve one or more of the challenges facing America’s 193-million-acre National Forest System,” according to the National Forest Foundation (NFF), which runs the competition with sponsorship from the Barrett Foundation, led by Craig R. Barrett, former CEO of Intel and current chairman of the NFF’s Board of Directors.

According to the Challenge press release, “Both winning proposals address one of the most vexing issues in forest management – creating a viable market for small-diameter woody biomass resulting from forest restoration. These small trees and branches are often left in the forest to decompose or are burned. Limited options currently exist for deriving value from this restoration residue. Both winning business concepts break through the market barriers preventing utilization of this resource and present viable opportunities for converting these products into valuable commodities.”

Debbie Pierce and Niles Brinton present the Biochar business plan at a previous competition.

“Charborn was kind of a dream Eco-E project, because it blended so much science with the entrepreneurial aspect of the project,” said Eco-E program manager, Emily Cotter. “And the team was so smart in terms of developing their business model. A lot of times, students look at developing a technology and want to produce it themselves. But the Charborn team discovered that there was no shortage of producers. Rather, the producers were having a hard time finding customers, either because farmers didn’t know about it, didn’t know where to find it, or weren't aware of its benefits. With their understanding of the science behind the product and their extensive training in communication at Bren, the Charborn team are like industry translators. They can explain the science in terms that anyone can understand and appreciate.”

“I’m excited,” Brinton said a few days before going to Washington. “They’re going to have some officials from the Forest Service and other agencies there. I’m excited to be on the radar of people who are highly placed in policy related to agriculture and forest management.”

Charborn seeks to unlock the potential of biochar as a soil amendment for the agricultural industries. A high-carbon soil amendment similar to shredded bits of charcoal, biochar allows farmers to boost yields while using less water and fertilizer. Agricultural-grade biochar is produced through an industrial process that utilizes wood biomass waste from sources like sawmills and forest-thinning projects.

The runner-up, “Biomass to Biomethanol through Forest Remediation,” seeks to use low-value woody biomass from forest thinning and lumber-mill operations to create methanol and liquid carbon dioxide for sale into the market. Methanol is used utilized in a number of industrial applications, and liquid carbon dioxide is used by various food products and other industries.

“Both teams demonstrate a unique approach to removing a major barrier preventing more restoration work on our National Forests,” said Leslie Weldon, Deputy Chief of the National Forest System. “By creating a market for these by-products of forest restoration, the winning teams help create new opportunities for the Forest Service to achieve healthier forests and stimulate local economies. These are exactly the types of ideas we need to be nurturing across the country.”

Brinton and Pierce each received a six-month research fellowship from the Bren School after graduation. During that time, they completed their application for the competition and began real-world field testing of biochar with commercial growers. After six months, they incorporated. The partners plan to divide put their winnings into paying small salaries, conducting ongoing field testing, and “providing subsidized biochar for farmers,” says Pierce.

Chartered by Congress in 1993, the National Forest Foundation works with the U.S. Forest Service and other partners to leverage the best thinking, conservation capacity, and community action to measurably improve the health of national forests and grasslands in the U.S.

Find out more
about the Barrett Foundation Business Concept Challenge winners.
Find out more about Barrett Foundation Business Concept Challenge.
Visit the Charborn website.