Wittenberg entrepreneur Zachary Popp perfects hemp building material
In 2010, when Zachary Popp of Wittenberg discovered mold in his home, he was frustrated by the inefficiency of the materials used in the construction of the walls.
“One day I walked into my daughter’s room and it was black with mold,” he said. “I found a leaky window, and because I had worked in construction, I knew the way the walls were built was flawed. Instead of allowing the moisture to escape, the water got trapped in the wall and caused mold to grow.
Although he no longer works in construction, his years of experience working with his father, Jim, a contractor, provided him with a foundation of knowledge. He says his father had a mindset of continuous improvement in the building process, as he was always thinking about the product.
This led him to years of testing to create a product that would not trap moisture when wet.
“I started looking for mold-resistant materials, and as I searched through what was available, I kept coming across a product called hempcrete,” Popp said. I thought it was an amazing product and wondered why it wasn’t widely used.
Part of the reason was the cost of sourcing hemp; another was how long it took to dry if prepared at a job site. Hempcrete can take six to eight weeks to cure, and builders are unlikely to delay a project that long. His solution was to produce a precast block or panel that could be shipped directly to a construction site.
From 2013 to 2014, Popp said he started playing scientist in his garage. He bought all the components used to make hemp concrete and materials from Europe. Various ratios were shuffled around to test strength, and he landed on a winning formula. However, he had another problem to solve: the cost of shipping materials from overseas.
That changed when he found sources in the United States for hydraulic lime and the proprietary ingredients used in its binder. Then, in 2018, when it became legal for states to sell hemp, the bits started to fall into place.
“When the Farm Bill passed and I realized I might be able to get hemp at a more affordable price, I contacted a patent attorney and got a provisional patent. The following year, I got the US utility patent,” Popp said. ” It was not easy. It was quite a process.
He formed an LLC and named the company Sativa Building Systems (Sativa is the scientific name for hemp). The panels were dubbed “Z Panels” and marketing began.
The benefits of the panels are huge, Popp said. They are resistant to mold, fire, pests and rot, and over its lifetime, hempcrete sequesters more carbon than it produces, a major environmental benefit.
From now on, a major emphasis will be placed on education.
“We have to convince people that the current product is flawed. It’s a long way to go and we are aware of it. But we have investors who are really interested,” Popp added.
Investors include those who donated to a successful campaign on wefunder.com where he reached his goal of $145,000. This money is being used wisely. Popp has hired a team that includes a chief financial officer and a chief operating officer and they help guide the efforts. They have a production facility and are working on getting a code approval report that will verify that the Z panel meets building codes.
The next goal is to raise $1.2 million from angel investors. Popp has presented to groups of investors and is optimistic. As the business came to fruition, he continued his full-time job as Dean of Enrollment at Midstate Technical College in Wisconsin Rapids. His schedule is busy — he and his wife are parents to seven children.
He said, “Children are a blessing; they are my motivation. I want all my children to be entrepreneurs. If I can give them a good example, that’s what I want to do.
The example they will see is of a hard-working dad who created a product that he says could generate $50 million in revenue within five years. This growth will come as people learn the benefits through a solid marketing plan.
Popp says consumer education will include trade shows, the website (www.sativabuildingsystems.com) and social media targeting builders and their customers. The price of the product is competitive and will only add about 10% to the construction cost. It’s a price that research has shown customers are willing to pay for the benefits.
Once he has the code approval report and is up and running, Popp said he plans to start small.
“The plan is to scale in proportion to demand,” he said. “To produce Z-panels for about one house a week, I will need a team of about five people. I don’t want us to get ahead of ourselves.
Another important thing Popp learned is to be prepared to make changes if necessary.
“If you feel like you’re really on to something, mentally prepare to fail, but improve with each failure,” he said. “My original idea was stackable panels. I wanted to produce whole walls, but they couldn’t be lifted and I had to rotate. If you fail at something, fail and learn from every mistake.
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and former district manager of SCORE, Wisconsin.