Interview: HempWood Founder Greg Wilson

A new sustainable design material enters the market with innumerable benefits

A patent-wielding Willy Wonka-like character who whips up sustainable building and design materials from various fibers, Greg Wilson has released details on his latest developments that focus on the dynamic, controversial hemp plant. His creation, HempWood, and its parent company, Fibonacci, are based out of a factory in a former cornfield in West Kentucky. And there, Wilson’s day-to-day workload includes educating consumers and imagining the processes for new applications of his invention. That doesn’t even take into account his relationship to the continued advancements of hemp legalization around the US. From experiments in basements and garages to eco-friendly, design-forward iterations, HempWood’s history is an engaging one.

“Historically, greater than 80% of the US hemp grew in Kentucky before it was regulated, which says to me it is coming back this way,” Wilson tells us over Zoom from his Kentucky office. “We are working with Oregon State University and Murray State University, in Murray, Kentucky. Kentucky made it easier to set up shop, so I moved here from China.” An American, Wilson has a business in Australia’s island state of Tasmania and quite a few operations in China exploring similar technologies to what he’s doing with hemp in the US.

“It’s all based off this one algorithm that allows you to transform a plant fiber into a wood composite,” he says. “You’ve got to modify it a little bit for the different fiber coming in, but for hemp we’ve also had to duck and weave around government regulation, COVID, wildfires and everything else 2020 has to offer.”

To understand any of Wilson’s ventures means understanding his personal mission. “The entire purpose of Fibonacci, as well as any of my other projects, is doing something positive that benefits the world, its people and their environment,” he says. “Hemp checks all of those boxes. It’s eco-friendly; it grows really, really fast while pulling carbon out of the air. The market demands it.” Due to regulation, big corporations haven’t entered the market yet and that’s given Wilson the opportunity to take matters into his own hands.

Perhaps the biggest challenge with HempWood—and all of his other products—is name recognition. “Nobody buys flooring by saying, ‘Hey give me some eucalyptus.’ They say, ‘I’d like wood flooring.’ We’ve noticed though, that if it is a different category altogether, they’ll call it by name: like bamboo or cork. We think the stars aligned with hemp, so now we are trying to earn ourselves a spot on the shelf along with those others items. We invented HempWood, we trademarked the name and patented the process so this is our category.”

Bamboo was the gateway material. Before HempWood, Wilson was working for a big materials company in China that was on a quest for new, raw materials. “We set up a nanotech lab at Flinders University in Australia. Hemp, or at the time we called it ‘weed wood,’ was one of the things that went through our R&D process there.” The research sat unused for almost six years. Then in 2014, when the first Farm Bill passed and after Wilson had gone out on his own to develop recycled wood technology in Tasmania (after getting a business degree from Harvard), a call arrived about his “weed wood” knowledge, from a publicly traded company. After discussions, it was deemed they couldn’t move forward, so he did alone.

Between 2014 and 2018 (when hemp development and research became legal on a federal level), Wilson and his team did everything in their power to advance their technology. Sometimes, it meant welding things together at the last second, sometimes it meant taking legal risks. As a smaller player in the arena, they needed to secure all their intellectual property. Wilson did everything down to selling a property in order to file patents around the world.

When asked what HempWood is, Wilson’s quite clear. “It is not wood,” he says. “It’s a wood-composite comprised of greater than 80% hemp fiber. We take the whole stalk and put it through a crushing machine which breaks open the cell structure. Then we dunk it into these enormous vats of soy protein, mixed with water and with the organic acid used by the paper towel industry. It’s essentially papier-mâché.” The science behind it continues to progress based on need. Someone wanted to be able to use HempWood for wood-turning, so they went to the lab and figured out how to modify the recipe.

“Nature densifies wood as it grows over the years. We are doing that real quick to a four-month-old hemp plant, instead of a 200-year-old Brazilian cherry,” he explains.

“We are the only scaled hemp fiber company in the US,” he continues. “There are other people trading it and others talking about it, but we are the only ones doing it. Our technology is there.” The product, then, can be used for interior, non-structural flooring, furniture, accent walls, picture frames, home goods and hobby activities. It’s been used by craftspeople for tables, cabinetry and bowls. Ultimately, Wilson says, “We are a challenger to American white oak. Our product is harder and more stable. So, let’s see what happens.” Early adopters have used it in restaurants and it’s already begun to find a home in eco-friendly cannabis shops and dispensaries.

Still, education has a long way to go. “The number one thing people do with our HempWood is they pick it up and smell it. The number one question that we get, as a joke, is ‘if that catches on fire, do people get high?'” That’s why Wilson’s diversifying the ways it sells: from finished products to HempWood kits and the raw material itself.

Wilson’s excitement is palpable. “We got certified to be exempt of the 1970s Controlled Substance Act, we are the first cannabis plant to fall outside of that, which also means the 2014 and 2018 farm bills do not apply, because we only use the stalk.” This allowed the brand to apply for renewable energy grants as they turn their hemp waste into energy at the factory. They’ve also landed new patents that will allow them to conduct electricity through their wood—and Wilson’s dreams for its application are nothing short of science fiction made real.

Images by Jeremy McKeel, courtesy of HempWood