VacuumWood.Tech: A wood structure start-up that’s going against the grain
We spoke with Panu Miettinen, VacuumWood.Tech co-founder, about the startup's aims to lower emissions with an innovative approach to construction. Plus, learn about Aalto's role in the company's growth.
What comes to mind when you think of ways to fight climate change? Renewable energy sources, or sustainable transport, perhaps?
But maybe wood should be higher up on that list. Hear us out. Using wood for construction can remove more CO2 from the atmosphere than it adds through manufacture, far less damaging to the environment than concrete or steel.
As we rush to combat the climate emergency, alternatives to practices we’ve previously taken for granted are becoming more commonplace. One such example is vertical farming - an indoor farming system that takes up far less space and uses much less water than traditional farming methods.
However, current vertical farming structures are made with concrete, steel or plastic. That, arguably, undermines the sustainable goals of vertical farming.
Co-Founder Panu Miettinen spoke with us about VacuumWood.Tech, a startup co-founded with CTO Pasi Herranen. Together, the team is bringing its new ultra-low-carbon and low-cost insulation solution to market.
Hi Panu, what's your elevator pitch for VacuumWood.Tech?
We have developed a brand new form of construction technology. Combining wood engineering with vacuum technology, we have created a modular, carbon-neutral construction system.
What makes the system innovative?
In the past, wood-based and vacuum-based construction approaches have been used, but there has never been a hybrid like ours.
Our dual approach results in a moisture-resistant and long-lasting construction system that can be used in a range of environments - from the ultra-cold to the ultra-warm. All this, coupled with low energy consumption, makes our system a unique construction solution.
Additionally, VacuumWood.Tech is the first company in the world to develop a technology that harnesses a physical phenomenon called vacuum drying as a maintenance service for an entire whole construction element. This guarantees that our elements will stay dry and healthy for decades or even centuries to come.
And what's the science behind the system?
The way that the hollow wooden element frames are designed creates the conditions for ultra low pressure inside the element. The water absorbed into the wooden element frame begins to boil, allowing for the unwanted extra moisture to be removed in gaseous form whenever needed.
The benefits - both in cost and carbon savings terms - are substantial. We believe that our cost-effective and zero-carbon solution has the capacity to change the world's approach to building design.
Where is the system being used?
Currently, we are focussing on developing vertical farms. Crops thrive in warm, humid conditions - the climate needs to be kept just right at all times.
Our solution is a mostly wooden construction system that can tolerate high moisture levels while still keeping warmth in - without the need for regular maintenance.
Vertical farming is not the limit of our solution's application - it can be used in pretty much any building structure as low maintenance, carbon neutral construction system.
How did you develop your concept?
Our founder Pasi Herranen was writing his master's thesis on the strength of plywood at Aalto. After he finished his thesis, he found himself very interested in the idea of combining wood and vacuum technology.
As a Mechanical Engineer, Pasi was very much focused on the design and build element of the business. He spent his first three years researching, testing and proving his concept.
In a former life, Pasi and I were both professional poker players - we met at a live poker tournament in Portugal 15 years ago. We became good friends and later we joined forces. I began to support Pasi on the commercialisation of his concept.
And how did the company grow?
At first, we struggled to get funding. I believe Pasi actually managed to pay for the first prototype and years of developing with poker winnings.
But little by little, we were able to conduct better market research, build bigger pilots and create more compelling alternatives to construction drawings.
In 2018, Pasi developed a larger prototype at Aalto, which is when the university began showing greater interest in our product. Innovation Services suggested introducing us to contacts and Business Finland. That introduction helped us secure funding for a 2-3 year tech research and commercialisation project.
In early 2019, we were able to start paying ourselves real salaries and we slowly grew to a team of 7.
We have now built the pilot vertical farm with great success alongside the Natural Resources Institute Finland, and hope to have developed our first commercial vertical farm towards the start of next year.
What further support did you receive from Aalto?
In addition to the connections that Aalto facilitated and the funding opportunities that the university opened doors to, we also received support with formalising our intellectual property and patent.
The project was really helped by professors taking an interest in Pasi's technology from the very start. This meant that we were introduced to the right professors in the right departments who had connections to important stakeholders.
What's next for VacuumWood.Tech?
We're now undertaking a seed funding round and hoping to secure €1m for our first commercial project. In the long run, we see ourselves expanding our vertical farming offering, as well as working on office and residential buildings.
Finland has a long history of wood element construction, and it seems fitting that a Finnish company is paving the way in this area. We're looking forward to growing and to supporting more sustainable construction initiatives in the future.
Aalto University's entrepreneurial community is helping startups like VacuumWood.Tech’s to thrive. Want to kick off your own entrepreneurial journey? Check out the Starting Up course. The open access online course covers the fundamentals of startup entrepreneurship. If you want to learn more about founding your startup with Aalto, explore the Aalto Startup Centre.