15. Ben Christensen on urban forestry and wood reuse

CEO at Cambium Carbon

Welcome to The Multi-usiverse. Alongside your guide, Garr Punnett, explore worlds of opportunity within the use of physical resources across companies and organizations. Consider this a field guide in scaling reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing, and recirculation. We’ll learn from guests who have ventured down this path and carved their way. Our aim is to discuss the successes, opportunities, and challenges of scaling a connected, circular economy. On this episode we’re joined by Ben Christensen, CEO of Cambium Carbon.

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Audio Transcript:

Garr Punnett (00:07)

Hey, everybody. Welcome back to the Multiusiverse podcast. My name is Garr Punnett, Chief Strategy Officer here at Rheaply. We had an exciting conversation today with Ben Christensen, who is the CEO and cofounder of Cambium Carbon, a circular economy technology platform that is looking at scaling reuse for wood products that have come either from fallen wood and that looking to make new homes, new products out of those wood materials instead of just sending it to landfill. It’s rare that we get to talk to a fellow technology provider who is building something in the circular economy. So it was a great joy to talk to Ben. Hope you enjoy. Please, if you have any questions, if you want to be on the podcast, please reach out to us at podcast@rheaply.com. We’re joined by Ben Christensen here today. Bent, could you tell our audience a little bit about yourself and the cool new startup that you all have really pioneered called Cambium Carbon?

Ben Christensen (01:10)

Yeah. So great to be here. Thanks so much for having me. So I’m the CEO and co founder of Cambium Carbon. So we use technology to build local regenerative wood product supply chains. So what does that really mean? We provide technology to local suppliers, folks who are normally focused really heads down just in their local market. And we help them access large national buyers. And then we help those national buyers really source nationally, locally. So what does that actually mean? It means that they’re able to buy in lots of different markets and actually source and connect that material. And locally, we’re just focused on wood products. We really are focused on this bigger problem of wasted wood and cities, which I’m sure we’ll get into, but that’s our bigger model and where we’re at.

Garr Punnett (01:52)

I said new in this, but you all have done some great work already for some time. Can you share a little bit about sort of that founding story because you’ve got some co founders, too. Everyone always loves a good origin story. What does that look like for you all?

Ben Christensen (02:07)

Yeah, it’s a good question. I started this really. My background is in technical climate solutions and then took sort of a more technical background. I was doing hydrofl cell research was much more in sort of the chemistry.

Garr Punnett (02:21)

I’m going to need you to break that word down for the audience. What were you doing?

Ben Christensen (02:26)

I was looking at the process of hydrolysis, which is how you split water to create hydrogen, hydrogen, a more renewable fuel source. And I was doing nanochemistry on that for a bit. Not a super long time, but I loved it. I loved the scientific method. And I also Rheaply learned that I don’t want to be in a lab. I really want to be engaging and growing with people at the same time. I was a back country guide, so I was leading lots of different folks and the outdoors. I love wilderness medicine and one of the big things there is, how do you deal with small teams with limited resources and limited information? And it turns out that type of decision making translates pretty good to being a startup.

Garr Punnett (03:05)

It does.

Ben Christensen (03:07)

I took those backgrounds together and then was working on federal policy and saw this big gap in climate solutions and particularly on focus on urban forestry and started going after it much more from the public sector perspective. So looking at how cities could really address this problem and in that process learned that there’s all of these other solutions, and that’s what we’ve really developed today is doing much more in on those.

Garr Punnett (03:30)

And again, from someone who’s not so rurally inclined or nature inclined like myself, I loved the city aspect to this. There are lots of solutions out there focused on wood. Most of them focused, frankly, on the rural, the nature focus, the forest preserve focus. Why for such a nature guy, focused on giving tours in nature, why the city focused? What spoke to you in terms of that opportunity?

Ben Christensen (04:01)

It’s a great question for me. I really started I grew up in a tiny town of about 200 people up in the mountains in rural New Mexico, so definitely have a much more sort of outdoor connection. But in that and in my process of learning more about how we think about climate change, I just realized that so much of the impacts of this are going to really impact people, and particularly they’re going to exacerbate these already existing gaps in our society. And so many people live in cities, so many people who experience injustice from our economic system in different places live in cities and thinking about how we can create climate solutions that can be meaningful and scalable in terms of addressing climate overall and also create resilience and economic resilience and vibrancy in cities is really what called to me to work there. And so that was a big part of it. And also just getting amazing partners. So much of what I believe is we work with communities, not in communities. We are all about listen first and just having a bunch of amazing partners who helped us learn about this challenge around urban wood waste and has really helped us co create the solutions that we’re going after.

Garr Punnett (05:10)

Tell, you can agree or disagree with the statement when I give it, but I was trying to explain again for our audience, you might be seeing similarities here in pulling together local solutions and figuring out how things work regionally and locally in cities, because that’s where the real impact is. I was trying to explain that to actually, I think a group of investors when it really almost became very clear that the work that we’re trying to do in cities is almost copying or mimicking a lot of what already happens in more rural, suburban, and even sort of nature focused communities, which is when wood falls down in nature someone might either be there to use it for energy or it’s going to actually end up get taken over by some other growth. That always isn’t the case here. When it falls in a city, it has a different outcome, right?

Ben Christensen (06:07)

Yeah, it’s amazing, right. We think about forests in a rural context as working lands. Right. Like, as these spaces that we are managing, we think about how can we do that better? And there’s all this new thinking around how we can do that better from a climate perspective and from a social and an environmental perspective. But the way we look at trees and cities so much is just as like, they serve their value for when they’re alive, and then once they’re done, they’re a waste product. We don’t see it as a working space and as one that can take more active management. And there are lots of amazing folks in urban forestry who do see it that way sort of more broadly as a society, we actually really overlook a lot of the trees that are closest to us. And I think that’s one of the big things that we’re trying to help Elevate, is how can we feel more connected to the trees that really bring us the most immediate value? Trees more broadly is super important, but the trees closest to us have all of these other co benefits of cleaner air and water.

Ben Christensen (07:05)

And how do we really stay connected to them?

Garr Punnett (07:07)

Yeah, it’s probably something, too, that when someone opens their eyes again to the impact of the trees around them, you almost don’t notice it until they’re not there anymore. And you go into the neighborhoods that don’t have as many trees, and you’re like, oh, this feels different. And even when we talk about feelings, even those neighborhoods, you’ll feel like, oh, this neighborhood feels like I’m not supposed to be here because you’re so used to seeing trees around when everyone deserves the trees, everyone deserves that type of shade. Everyone deserves that cooling effect, that purification process that they offer. It’s just that some of those neighborhoods have been cleared of that opportunity. How do you all start? What was the barrier there where you originally thought, okay, this is something we can help solve and speak a little bit about the business model of how you go around talking to public organizations or governments, getting more organizational support, and how you start building these local economies.

Ben Christensen (08:06)

Yeah, I mean, we’re talking about this a little bit before we started, but it’s Rheaply when we think about building a circular economy here, it’s about engaging with a number of different stakeholders. We really started initially to your question about how did this film in, like, what sparked this? We got a great grant in partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation from the Nature Conservancy, basically put out a proposal to cities to say, hey, we want to come in and understand this, help you understand this, problem and think about solutions like sort of simply what happens to the wood waste in your city? How can we help you solve it? And we had 31 cities from all across the country apply, and we were a super small team. Didn’t really put it out. And we were like, oh, wow, this is a much bigger problem than we realized. And so that was our first indication. And then when we started to really work with the cities, we realized that the public sector and the private sector are totally disconnected on this problem. The private sector itself is a really fragmented market with all of these different players who actually contribute to this waste problem.

Ben Christensen (09:07)

And that the real issue across the system is data and having a centralized sort of aggregation across it. And so in that, we’ve started to really build much more of our business model focused on the private sector because we think we can act much more quickly there. And we are seeing those results. And there’s also a lot of existing infrastructure that can actually capture these trees. Think about local sawmills and wood product shops that will actually help do that. And at the same time and we were talking about this as well, but we’re working on this solution that’s private sector and also trying to really elevate the public sector at the same time. So working with cities there too.

Garr Punnett (09:43)

So breaking that down, then further, this is essentially saying, correct me if I’m wrong, please. If instead of going after a government contract potentially where there’s some sort of RFP request for proposal where you might be trying to intervene and say, hey, we can help with whatever private organization is going to complete this RFP and move that would accordingly to a secondary market source, whether that is a sawmill or some sort of carpentry type operation, you’re now more intervening strictly on the private level. Is that my understanding where instead you’re sort of leaving the RFPs alone, letting the public market or the private market address the RFPs, and then you’re saying, okay, we can intervene here on the private side, talk to those companies directly, not deal with the RFP, and then find the wood source that way.

Ben Christensen (10:36)

Yeah, that’s both right and not right.

Garr Punnett (10:39)

I love when I’m right and not right.

Ben Christensen (10:41)

Yes, I’m usually both right and not right. That’s how most things come in the near term. We’re really working more on that private sector side to help enable that. But we’re still very actively working with cities and our sort of thinking. And this is how I think about climate change. I think climate change is a kitchen sink problem. We need all of these different solutions. We need the best of each sort of category of solution. But there’s no silver bullet, right? We need all of it. And that’s sort of how we think about really addressing this with waste problem is we want to address saving trees from sort of all sides. And because it hasn’t been addressed in sort of a unified way, that’s what really is needed in this space. And so we can enter all right, a tree is coming down. Like, we can enter that process from the developer side, somebody who is actually taking down that tree, and we’ll work with them to then connect them into our network of offtake suppliers. We might just touch that tree when an arborist is bringing it to one of our local Millers. We might touch that tree from a city side, helping them understand and have the data.

Ben Christensen (11:48)

And we can sort of come at that from every different angle. And again, there’s challenges that are involved in that. But also we see that as our path to having the biggest impact, and that’s what we care about is really large results.

Garr Punnett (12:00)

Well, that challenge, too. And as you said before, too, that multi stakeholder approach is not easy. It is a constant evaluation of what messaging is going to intervene, at what step, for which type of person we’re trying to connect into this network. How has that gone and sort of communicating? Like, what sort of the great success stories have you all had so far, who’s been sort of who gets the gold star for some of your clients?

Ben Christensen (12:31)

Yeah, I think, as you’re saying, it’s a challenge. And I think that’s one of the things that we’re continuing to try to really lean on, which is how do you listen to the different stakeholders that we have and provide real value? I think if you come to mind, on the side, we’re doing a lot of really exciting work in the city of Philadelphia right now, really trying to help them actually elevate and build out a new sort of centralized place in the city that they can capture this wood waste. And the big win for them is it’s a money saver. It saves on the bottom line. So there’s a really big opportunity in collaboration with the work that we’re doing there. On the private side, we did an awesome project with Towson University that is a really cool sort of full cycle, one where they’re building a new student Union that’s focused on entrepreneurship, particularly impactful entrepreneurship. And we built all the tables there sourced from a local shop. It was tracked and built on our platform. All that wood came from trees that were coming down naturally in Baltimore was processed, dried and saved from landfill.

Ben Christensen (13:34)

And then we also reinvested in new trees, just like one neighborhood over. That full story there is really exciting and something that it’s been really cool to see how much the folks that go into that space talk about it and think about it and see it. And I think that’s what we get really excited about longer term. And I know you all get excited about this as well, but when you can tell that story in a physical product and a product that you wouldn’t normally think about with it. It’s huge. That’s how we start driving change in bigger ways as well.

Garr Punnett (14:05)

Yes, you are so right in how we identify that, because so much of what we’re doing has previously. The reason that the problem exists is because it’s been sort of in the dark. And so as soon as you can bring it into the light, highlight that it’s a problem, but then show that a solution is something either super creative that someone made, or there’s a new use or utility for the thing that was once waste. I love seeing the light bulb. It’s actually almost the reason for the title of the podcast, which is the reason for the multiusiverse is it’s almost something you can’t unsee once you start to see the world a little bit differently, you start to see it with a new lens. You can’t unsee reuse and including sort of more sustainable thought leadership in sort of how you’re trying to drive decision making, whatever organization or whatever you’re even doing personally. Can you talk a little bit about the business model? And if someone’s listening here who’s like, oh, my gosh, I’ve never heard of Cambium. How do I get involved? Whether it’s a city official or private organization? What does that look like from both of those different stakeholders?

Ben Christensen (15:11)

Yeah. So we really have sort of three core parts of our business model. So the first is providing technology and support for these local mill wood products apps. So if you’re somebody who works with wood in an urban context, in any form, we’d love to talk to you. Our software really helps you manage your business, manage operations, and then connect into national market. So that’s sort of the second component where we work with these large brands, large buyers who purchase with products. And we’ve got some really exciting partnerships that will be announced in the next few months that our local buyers. And so if you’re a local producer, we will bring you larger orders. And so that’s sort of the second part there. And then the final part of our business model is we work with cities and consultants. And the big thing there is we help you. That enabling work. And this is one of the things that we really believe in is we do that enabling work, we help support policy. All of that is critical. And at the same time, we’re actively working on the private side, we’re actively connecting with the NGO community, we’re actively working with the developers in each of the city.

Ben Christensen (16:18)

So once we have that public side, we’ve already built sort of the infrastructure and we can layer both. So that’s sort of how our three part business model really connects and feeds on itself.

Garr Punnett (16:28)

Oh, that’s great. You’re kind of working on some more pioneering tech, too, a little bit. Willing to share anything with from south by Southwest, anything that related to maybe some NF tree type thinking?

Ben Christensen (16:43)

Yeah, I think it’s an interesting space. I think it’s complicated. I think we are trying to see and understand Web three a little bit. I think particularly for our technology, we have an opportunity to sort of transform the need for certification. You need certification, right. You don’t know where something came from. We have the data to tell you where every single board on our platform came from. And that’s something, obviously, that you all do so well. And that’s the big part of moving past the need for these third parties. And again, there are certainly spaces where certification is really important plays a critical role. There’s also spaces where I think we can really move past it. And I think one, three can help enable that. I also think that there’s some interesting ways that we can connect with communities. I also think that there’s a lot of complexity in getting that right is something that we’re trying to also really be aware of. We’re not putting a ton of time and energy into that. We’re sort of just doing some high level testing and seeing how that goes.

Garr Punnett (17:43)

No, it is because it’s a fun space, too, and we haven’t actively been thinking about it. And no one’s looking for an NFT enabled chair from Rheaply. But it is interesting, and I think I could even see a path. And I’d love your thoughts on this, too. I’ve thought about it a little bit. But how do you reward digitally for actions taken in the physical world? And it’s like, how is that potential sort of there, and maybe there’s a path forward that’s a little bit closer to home with how people are emotionally connected to trees around them, and maybe there’s something there, but it is fun. It’s fun to think about. How does it bring more efficiency? How does it build and more trust into a system without third parties involved? Well, so what’s really next for you all? I know that you’ve got sort of a big announcement, too, that maybe you’re willing to share or not share, but there’s definitely growth on your horizon. What’s coming next?

Ben Christensen (18:45)

Yeah, so big news for us. So we just closed our seat ground, which is really exciting for about ten new roles. So if anybody listening is interested, we’re actively looking for passionate folks to really build this together. We also just finished our second acquisition, so we just integrated with a local mill shop in Baltimore, which we are really excited to share more about. Fantastic. Really soon again, giving us more of that deep wood products expertise, a real regional connection, a place to do Rd, just an amazing team that is going to join and help our team really grow and scale. And yeah, a lot of fun and exciting partnerships that will be announced in the next few months that I think are going to really bring this wood or carbon Smartwood to the national market and are going to make some splashes in the space. So we’re excited to share it once we’re ready.

Garr Punnett (19:37)

Excellent. And then when it comes to wood reuse in the average consumer, someone who isn’t working at a private organization milling trees or taking them down, and someone who isn’t working at a city government, how should we be thinking about wood and wood reuse? What sort of advice do you have? A call to action do you have for wood reuse?

Ben Christensen (20:00)

I’ve got two for you. The first is to be just think about it. Be more aware. There are sort of two ways. This is also one of my AHA, moments is I was home in Albuquerque and I was looking at the firewood that was outside the grocery store, just a little firewood bundle. I picked it up and it came from Estonia. And I was like, I just came from a mill shop that was thrown away so much wood. And we’re shipping from Estonia to New Mexico, it doesn’t make any sense. Crazy just to burn it, right? Just to burn in our fireplace, that doesn’t make any sense. So think about it.

Garr Punnett (20:35)

Even think about giant bundles of wood that are packed into a storage unit shipped across an ocean.

Ben Christensen (20:42)

I know it’s unbelievably frustrating. It makes no sense. So that’s piece one. The second is when you’re walking around and I encourage you to think about this as well, but notice how many trees come down. Like, we take down lots of trees all the time for lots of different reasons. And think about what happens to that. Or ask the Archers there like, hey, what’s going to happen to that wood? Most times it’s going to get shipped, and often times it’s also going to get just thinking about them being more aware is a big part. And then the final one, I would say is we work with about 140 different local wood product shops all across the country who do salvage flip, who save trees that were destined for mulcher for landfill and catch them. So they exist in every single city. You can look it up, usually under the term urban wood. And if you want to, you’re doing some home woodworking, doing any sort of wood project. Check it out. Go find a local Sawyer or Miller. And they are all amazing wood products experts who can help really access local species. So that’s what I would say.

Ben Christensen (21:46)

Learn about it and then think local when you’re buying.

Garr Punnett (21:49)

Love that. Where can people find you? All your Ted talk, what’s going on? Where do they look?


Ben Christensen (21:56)

Yeah, check it out cambriancarbon.com. That’s really where you can start connecting and, yeah, lots of resources there.

Garr Punnett (22:04)

Excellent. Ben, thank you so much for taking the time today. It’s been such a pleasure. I look so much forward to the growth that you all have coming. And whatever might be coming on the horizon for our circular economy is to collide. A little bit. So. That will be a lot of fun.

Ben Christensen (22:17)

Yeah. I think there’s going to be some awesome synergies there and. Yeah. Really excited. Thanks for having me.

Garr Punnett (22:22)

Yes, sir.

Ben Christensen (22:22)

Talk soon.

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