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  May 7th, 2014 | Written by

The Noble Mission

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Robert Noble can see the future.

No, he doesn’t have a crystal ball, peyote or rapport with a higher power. He sees tomorrow through cellulose fiber, the “golden key” to housing the world’s population. His vision is so powerful it has drafted a former IKEA chief executive as investor and partner. So powerful that its has reshaped the way his logistics firm will do business. Robert Noble sees this future because he’s spent 35 years creating it and is finally at the last stop on the road to realization, a road that, for now, runs through Serbia.

“The mission of the company is a global mission,” he says of his latest venture, Noble Environmental Technologies (NET), a smallish San Diego outfit borne out of a partnership with the USDA’s Forest Products Laboratory. Noble’s work through this lab achieves the dreams of medieval alchemists who sought to turn the worthless into gold.

Those alchemists failed. But by using cellulose fiber as the molecular building block of what he calls a Universal Construction Panel (UCP), Robert Noble will turn trash into homes.

“If you look at the markets that will be most dramatically affected,” he says, “it’s Southeast Asia, Indonesia, China, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, African countries, you go on and on. They really need to find solutions to massive pollution and environmental devastation. They have deforestation going on at a scale that can’t even be imagined, so from a mission point of view, we not only have to be global, we have to look to those markets as soon as it is commercially viable.”

The roots of Noble’s environmentalism reach down to the bedrock of his architecture career, one that has helped shape San Diego’s skyline and isn’t unlike a plant itself, experiencing alternating seasons of bloom and bust. His start came at the University of California, Berkeley’s ahead-of-its-time College of Environmental Design architecture program, on to Harvard, “where designers learn to be architects,” to positions at architecture practices and then a succession of private companies concentrated on developing the UCP and, ultimately, sheltering every human on Earth.

Most notably there was the PyraMOD system, a wheat-straw panel-based system made by Mansion Industries, Noble’s first invention out of architecture school that reached the pages of USA Today and attracted green-minded dreamers from everywhere before losing funding support; then GridCORE, Noble’s pet project that had $15 million raised, a great team, and a product that wasn’t quite there. It, too, fell just short, shoved toward its fate by forces mostly outside Noble’s control. Running parallel to these disappointments were his highly successful careers as architect and green-tech inventor, punctuated by his takeover and revitilization of Tucker Sadler Architects and breakthrough environmental inventions such as Solar Trees and Life Villages—both projects of his other company, Envision Solar, launched the same day as NET.

Noble Environmental Technologies is the enterprise that is at last going global, the culmination of all previous companies that wouldn’t exist without them, and the one he’s wanted all along. NET manufactures one thing, cellulose fiber panels, but versions range dozens of fiber types—white office paper, newspaper, denim, eucalyptus, even cow patties—and distinct finished products number in the hundreds: designer bowls, all types of furniture, hangers, garbage bins, customizable packaging, sculptures, signs, eyewear, designer wall tiles, trade show booths, much more and, of course, the UCP.

IMPROVING VISION Noble Environmental Technologies’ ECOR succeeds where other attempts at a the perfect building material failed. And it makes really cool boutique products, like this eyewear.
Noble Environmental Technologies’ ECOR succeeds where other attempts at a the perfect building material failed. And it makes really cool boutique products, like this eyewear.

Why is it different and why does it matter? The basic panel, which is called ECOR and can be shaped into alternate configurations such as those termed FlatCOR, WavCOR and HoneyCOR, is significantly lighter than like materials such as medium-density fiberboard, particle board and plywood, stronger, and soon-to-be cheaper. You have to take a moment to appreciate what Noble has done: He’s created the 21st century brick out of ubiquitous low- or zero-cost recycled waste materials and offered the world a very real solution to global deforestation. Housing, waste reduction, forest conservation—three birds with one very stylish stone.

“I like to say, ‘What if?’” Noble says. “Let’s describe an ideal scenario. Let’s forget restrictions. Let’s forget limitations and obstacles and the past. Let’s talk about ‘What if?’

“What if we had a perfect building system? You don’t care about whether it’s possible or not. You would say, light weight, low cost, small parts so that even women with small hands can actually build a house. What if it had no off-gassing? What if it could be produced locally? What if it could be reused after its use? What if it had flexibility?

“The thing is that it’s possible and we are within sight of doing it on all those fronts because we have broken it down to the most basic component, and the most basic component is a doggone cellulose fiber. It is the most ubiquitous [living] structure on the planet. And you know what, we’re doing it. It’s totally possible.”

Possible, yes. But practical? From its inception in 2007 through the start of commercialization in 2010 and to March of this year, NET’s panels cost a cool $3 to $4 per square foot to produce. From a large-scale commercialization perspective, that’s not going to cut it. The upshot is that Noble’s final challenge after 35 year of problem solving is finally in his crosshairs, and it’s the long but manageable process of achieving economies of scale.

This is where the road reaches Serbia by way of Zug, Switzerland, and former IKEA USA chief executive officer Rene Hausler.

UNIVERSAL CONSTRUCTION PANEL These little coasters bearing the “E” for “ECOR” are actually miniature UCPs.
UNIVERSAL CONSTRUCTION PANEL These little coasters bearing the “E” for “ECOR” are actually miniature UCPs.

In 2007, Noble and Hausler were each board members of San Diego’s Design Innovation Institute when Noble invited Hausler to his La Jolla office, pitched him on the new material and got not only interest, but a new investor. “Here is a guy who does business all over the world, and here he is getting involved with our company and then writing checks,” Noble says. “When people put skin in the game it really means a lot.”

In this case it meant a more hands-on investment was next. The two saw the incredible opportunity in Europe, which Noble says is more receptive to sustainability than the U.S., and hatched a plan to co-found Noble Environmental Europe (NEEU) in March 2013. A native of Switzerland, Hausler shopped around his home country for a place to build NEEU headquarters and settled on the town of Zug, owed to having the lowest tax rates.

The pair launched NEEU as a separate entity of which NET retains a 75 percent share, which Noble plans to increase to 80 percent or more. It may seem a hassle to start an entirely different company, but here again Noble’s problem solving was hard at work. The trouble with raising capital, as the two quickly learned, is that Swiss people wanted to invest in Swiss companies. The idea was proposed to simply allocate all local investment through NET to the Swiss operation, but the investors were steadfast and NEEU was established as a separate company with exclusive rights to the entire European, Middle East, African and Russian markets.

When Hausler began scouting locations for a European production facility, business associates encouraged him to look to Serbia at a lot next to their own in the town of Kraljevo, 2.5 hours south of Belgrade, the capital. Hausler liked what he saw and invited Noble, who says he found a receptive government that supported fast-tracking permits, an industrialized area that Fiat had recently chosen for its largest facility, a wealth of engineers, very low labor, land and construction costs, and an excellent base for worldwide shipments.

Construction began in July 2013 on one of three parcels purchased by NEEU and was completed in less than a year. Better yet, by the time the facility began ECOR production in March 2014, more than 40 percent of its production capacity for the year had already been sold out. The growth projections aligned with every wild fantasy Noble had for the company’s acceleration and he decided to stay ahead by green lighting the build-out of the other parcels at an estimated cost of about $2 million.

The Serbian facility is the first major step toward the scalability that stands between Noble and his grand vision. The $4-per-square-foot production cost he waded through in his U.S. facility at the USDA’s Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, plummeted all the way down to a direct cost of about $0.20.

That’s a cost primed for commercialization.

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT ECOR panels are made from the cellulose fibers of a wide range of materials, including white office paper, eucalyptus and denim.
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT ECOR panels are made from the cellulose fibers of a wide range of materials, including white office paper, eucalyptus and denim.

And the world is primed, too. Green-conscious consumers have voted with their dollars, nudging savvy manufacturers and retailers into an eco win-win: sales through conservation. Imagine the excitement one long-time company salesman [whose name is being witheld upon request]. He gets to walk into every meeting with a product anyone in their right mind will want, which can be shaped into just about anything and is cost competitive.

“It’s working for a visionary,” he beams when asked about Noble. “He’s an artist, an architect, a sculptor, an environmentalist—and he’s able to bring it all together.

“It’s like being with Apple or Google at the very beginning.”

After seven years of perfecting design, seeding the market and raising money, the Serbian facility does mark the beginning for the company—the Grand Opening, if you will. Fifty percent of the FlatCOR that comes off the line in Kraljevo is starting to be shipped to distributors and customers in Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Slovenia and Austria via NEEU and local logistics partners. The other 50 percent is earmarked for the U.S., due to arrive at the Port of Oakland at an average rate of about one full container load per week beginning in July of this year. The logistics partnership that will see this through is as innovative as the man who envisioned it—Robert Noble, of course.

The logistics partner, PackageOne/American River, handles both transportation and packaging. Its owner, Tom Kandris, keenly recognized the value of laying claim to future transportation business and using FlatCOR to overhaul his own packaging operation, which includes clients such as almond producer Blue Diamond. He swung for the fences and asked Noble to be an exclusive partner.

“I prefer not to have the word exclusivity to go into an agreement with an outside company,” Noble says. But while others may occasionally think outside the box, Noble has never seen the inside; he just took one look at it and said, “Hey, that box could be lighter, stronger, cheaper and made from recycled waste.” He suggested a unique arrangement whereby the two parties created a joint venture, managed and 50-percent owned by Kandris, 50-percent owned by Noble Environmental. The deal gives Kandris an opportunity to greatly expand and differentiate his business, and it keeps Noble in the decision-making process and focused on the big growth picture with a partner he calls “One of the best guys on the planet to help expand ECOR factories worldwide.”

Their first factory together will be a “bolt-on” Noble Environmental facility in Sacramento, attached to one of Kandris’ logistics buildings. Here, Kandris’ operation will handle post production on customized products made from FlatCOR manufactured by Noble Environmental at its first U.S. factory, and it will approach the per-square-foot costs enjoyed in Serbia.

Getting to that price range will require more automation and less labor, but the ultimate goal is a multitude of massive facilities that churn out panels for pennies or less per square foot. And it’s all coming, it’s just a matter of pacing growth and reaching the long-term vision of a sheltering the world’s population by generating revenue and, ultimately, scalability through what Noble calls his “cottage industry” products—the finished goods made from FlatCOR, such as the aforementioned designer bowls, furniture, retail displays and hangers, signage, trade show booths, etc. Virtually all FlatCOR is currently either fashioned into some new and interesting product by Noble Environmental itself, or sold to third-party fabricators and customers that do likewise. This cottage industry, Noble predicts, will account for a significant percentage of the company’s profits because of the high margins of customized products. It will fund the expansions that fuel the realization of his lifelong global vision.

In the meantime, Noble Environmental is in the planning stage of adding facilities in Denver and Alpena, Michigan, to its U.S. operations. Like nearly everything accomplished within the company, the vision and decision were Noble’s, but handed over to company president Jim Torti to carry out. “[Noble] sort of did the Ferrari or Lamborghini analogy,” Torti recalls of hashing out a working arrangement, “and said, ‘This is the car and I want you to drive it.’” And when you work for a man as broadly focused as Robert Noble, you’re not exactly driving Miss Daisy. Torti shifts from product design to development to management to implementing every impulse that Noble feels must be acted on. “I’ve got the discipline enough to sort of take it from the loose entrepreneurial side of things that tend to be fairly all over the place to some systems that get much more organized and sort of create structure,” Torti says.

THE DRIVER Jim Torti, president of Noble Environmental, says his role in the company is like being given a Ferrari and tossed the keys.
THE DRIVER Jim Torti, president of Noble Environmental, says his role in the company is like being given a Ferrari and tossed the keys.

But if Noble created the Ferrari and Torti drives it, it’s Noble Environmental’s director, Jay Potter, that’s tasked with fueling it. From the company’s inception, Potter has been the main force behind attracting investment, though many early stakeholders were introduced through Noble. Circa 2007, Potter had a brokerage firm that raised money for small businesses through private placements. Noble, seeing how skilled Potter was at raising capital, offered him an alliance that ultimately led to Potter joining the company and residing on the boards of both of Noble’s enterprises, NET and Envision Solar.

“We say Bob is the ego, I’m the superego and Jay is the id,” Torti laughs. “That’s the three parts of the personality according to Freud. So you can’t have one operating, it can’t be all about ego, it can’t be all about superego and it can’t be all about the id.”

The practical application for Noble is that having two capable and trustworthy individuals to whom he can entrust his company’s vital operations frees him up to drift back into dreaming big. And it always comes back to the UCP—the Universal Construction Panel that will eventually offer low-cost housing to the world. With everything in place, those dreams are now wandering to the countries he envisions as the biggest foreign markets for his unique product. Those are China, Brazil and Australia, which Noble says he will tap into differently than NEEU. The operations in these countries will be founded on master alliance partnering agreements and master alliance intellectual property agreements—similar to NEEU—but will be funded largely by local investment and remain 100 percent owned by NET, which will channel a majority of the raised capital to the country of origin.

Noble has anticipated the possibility that local investors may react similarly to those in Switzerland, wishing only to invest locally. “What we’ll do then is have a much higher valuation,” he says, “a much higher pre-money valuation for that corporation for them to invest. They will secure equity in that company but we will also make a condition that some of their investment goes directly into Noble Environmental Technologies. So it will be a hybrid. We will see a dilution but we’ll see a beneficial partnership in that they’ll be committed to the success of that company in that region.”

NET’s China division, which will have its corporate headquarters in Hong Kong, figures to have not only a lucrative position, but a socially imperative one.

“The reality is their forest reserves are depleted,” Noble says gravely. “They are not going to have wood to build houses. They just aren’t going to have it. It’s not available for 1.3 billion people.

“China is very important to us, but what I described is the case in almost every country. We are a global company,” Noble says. “That’s our intent. That’s the value proposition that we propose. Plywood is everywhere. Particle board is everywhere. Medium density fiber is everywhere. Corrugated cardboard is everywhere. By the way, all of them were basically invented in the United States and then they proliferated worldwide as commodities. We look to do the same thing with ECOR.”

And that process is well under way, paced only by scale of production and the sales volume and capital infusion it takes to get there. But after 35 years, Robert Noble is within reach of a vision, a “Noble” revolution he coyly calls “grandiose.”

Is he grandiose? Sure. So were Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Elon Musk and Thomas Edison—all heroes of his. Soon, they could be peers.

“It’s fun to see the future,” he says. “The one that you create.”