Raising Some Cane with Bamboo

Jackie Heinricher Begins a Biological Revolution

Olympia, Washington. 1972.

A young girl runs through her back yard, where her father has planted golden bamboo in a cool, rustling jungle. She grabs a few poles and imagines the next project she can create from their woody stems.

Bamboo Everywhere

Close to 40 years later, Jackie Heinricher ’86 runs Boo-Shoot Gardens in Mt. Vernon, Wash., a multimillion-dollar biotechnology company she started in her Anacortes barn in 1998. The company employs 55 scientists, horticulture specialists and growers at peak times, produces more than two million bamboo plants a year and has launched the “Plant-a-Boo” crusade to curb global warming.

Bamboo comes in more than 1200 varieties, and can grow almost anywhere. It can be used for timber, textiles, paper and food. It produces 35 percent more oxygen than trees, and sequesters four times more carbon from the air. In many ways, it’s a miracle plant that will help seriously mitigate worldwide climate change.

So why hasn’t the world jumped on this?

Because until Heinricher and senior scientist Randy Burr discovered how to clone bamboo through tissue culture, it was incredibly difficult to grow on a large scale. Contrary to popular belief, many strains of bamboo don’t run amok across your and your neighbors’ lawns. It is not only suitable for tropical climates. And it is a natural resource in deep peril—more than half of bamboo species worldwide are extinct or endangered.

That’s because most strains only flower and produce seed once every 60 to 120 years, and then die. Without seeds, or a viable process to divide or graft plants, there was simply not enough bamboo to go around. After eight years of research and development, in 2007 Boo-Shoot produced breakthrough tissue-culture technology, now patent pending, enabling them to produce millions of plants—an unprecedented scale for bamboo. They are the worldwide leader in the field, attracting interest from Asia and Europe, as well as here in the U.S., which is the world’s largest importer of bamboo products.

Their technology enables markets worldwide to meet the growing demand for bamboo for use in wood products, pulp for paper and textiles, soil stabilization, and reforestation, and to take advantage of bamboo’s untapped potential for carbon sequestration.

When Heinricher started her company, bamboo had little market value. She was working on producing non-invasive bamboo strains for ornamental horticulture. But while she worked, market demand for bamboo grew, as did the technologies to use it.

“We’ve found a way to produce this natural resource,” she explains. “Now my job is to help corporations and landowners come together to make it work commercially. This is a homegrown technology that can make a difference in this country.”

At first, the woman The Seattle Times calls “the bamboo empress,” doesn’t seem like the person you’d think would be running a multimillion-dollar biotechnology company. She’s been a ski instructor, an Army nurse, a scuba diver, and a marine biologist. But that’s part of her success. “I’ve learned to get along with all kinds of people,” she says. “Business isn’t something you can do on your own.”

Heinricher came to Evergreen because she knew it was progressive and committed to the environment. She earned her master’s degree in fisheries science at Tennessee Tech, where she surprised her advisors by immediately crossing department lines, working with medical experts to figure out how a massive dam project affected mussel spawning. Her thesis findings convinced dam officials to change the way they released water from the dams. “I felt like I was head and shoulders above lots of students in my level of preparation (for grad school),” she says. “What I’m doing today is very in line with all things Evergreen.”

Although Boo-Shoot offers transformational technology, it’s challenging to get the information out there so that government and landowners understand and get on board. In 2004, bamboo markets worldwide were $5-7 billion. They are predicted to reach $25 billion by 2015, offering opportunities most people can’t even imagine right now.

Heinricher is just the right person to help them see. “You’re the scientist, but you have to be an expert in a lot of fields to be able to clarify the opportunities,” she says of her unique role in the field. “You morph into another type of person. The biggest gift is the ability to get people to the table to ask the critical questions.”

In fall 2009, Boo-Shoot is beginning their U.S. pilot program in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, where bamboo used to grow wild along the Mississippi River before it was wiped out by agriculture and development. They’re partnering with the Delta Economic Development Center and corporations that can use the raw material.

Right now, most farmers in the area are doing annual row-crop farming. Bamboo is a risk for them, because they will have to wait 3-5 years for the crop to mature. But after that, they can sustainably harvest the bamboo without having to replant. Most plants can be harvested for 60-100 years. And unlike cotton, it doesn’t require pesticides to grow. Heinricher believes it will help lots of high-poverty communities where crops like cotton are no longer competitive.

“Right now, we’re still in the initial stages—just poking our eyes out of the water and seeing how this technology can be used,” Heinricher explains. “When plants are in the ground and our initial partner projects with corporations are established, then we’ll be able to get more support.”

Although their first project is concentrating in the U.S. cotton belt, bamboo varieties for paper products and carbon offsets can be grown anywhere. Boo-Shoot’s technology and approach meet many of President Obama’s milestones for green jobs, so the environment is right for this emerging field. And corporations that have been importing their bamboo from Asia are beginning to partner with Boo-Shoot on domestic production.

Boo-Shoot began its “Plant a Boo” campaign to inform, educate and demonstrate how bamboo can address the environmental impacts of global climate change. Plant a Boo provides a platform for businesses, organizations, foundations and governments to promote the environmental benefits of growing bamboo. One of their first partners is Bridgedale, an international company based in Northern Ireland that is the market leader in producing technical outdoor socks. In 2009, Bridgedale introduced a new hybrid material featuring bamboo.

graphic image of bamboo

“The breakthrough we have come up with is staggering, especially for a small group. What it can do for the U.S. and for other countries is amazing,” says Heinricher. “When people really start recognizing the opportunity, it will play a huge role in so many different markets.”

This comes from someone who wasn’t sure she was academically prepared for college, and hadn’t planned to go into science. Her work is more qualitative than quantitative science, and she encourages students who may not think they’re good at science or math to give it a try. “You can have a big impact without a calculator,” she says. “Science mostly requires a keen sense of observation and curiosity.”

As for business? Boo-Shoot started out small, and Heinricher relied on other businesspeople to show her how to move forward. “It’s a long process, and you can’t let go—you have to be doggedly determined to fight your way through it,” she says. “You have to partner with other businesses, and find the right people to help you.” Anyone running a company faces tremendous challenges—it’s not just about having a good idea. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, more than half of new businesses fail in five years, usually for financial reasons. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a zigzag path to get there, and you can’t always see it,” explains Heinricher. “You just have to push forward and be confident it’s there.”

She worked with bankers, CPAs, and other business owners to get ideas on growing her business. Now she’s creating her first board of directors, and working to raise capital investment. Being an entrepreneur is “scary as hell,” she says. “But you just need to take the leap.”