Veteran wins U.S. Bank Foundation Cleantech award for eco-friendly furniture

July 12, 2022
Pictured: Doug Williams, founder of Calico Sol. Picture credit: Amber Robinson.

North Carolina entrepreneur will receive a $25,000 grant and a year-long mentorship as part of third-annual Cleantech Inclusion Award.

As a combat engineer and civil affairs specialist in the United States Army, Doug Williams developed solutions for serious situations. Now, he’s looking to solve a new problem: the high turnover of what he calls fast furniture.

Armed with an engineering management degree from West Point, an MBA from Wharton and a natural curiosity, Williams founded Calico Sol in 2020 – his North Carolina-based company focused on providing furniture as a service to help environmentally conscious businesses achieve LEED V4.1 certifications.

“A lot of companies will mention sustainability as a perk with the main proposition of comfort or style, but sustainability is a core component of our value proposition,” explained Williams.

His furniture concept is based on what’s called a circular economy and its three principles: designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems.

With the help of Bunker Labs – a cohort program for veterans interested in entrepreneurship – and a fundraising campaign of $120,000 from friends and family, Williams developed his first prototype: a couch made of recycled polyester, polyurethane and steel. There is no glue involved, making Calico Sol’s couch 100% renewable. 

Still early in development, Calico Sol caught the attention of Evergreen Climate Innovations  and the U.S. Bank Foundation. They selected Williams as the winner of the 2022 U.S. Bank Foundation Cleantech Inclusion Award, which supports female and minority entrepreneurs who are building innovative companies.

“We are inspired by the talented entrepreneurs looking to solve challenges in our communities,” said Reba Dominski, head of Corporate Social Responsibility at U.S. Bank and President of U.S. Bank Foundation. “As part of our focus on environmental sustainability, we are excited to support once again one of these entrepreneurs. Calico Sol has a unique business model creating 100% renewable furniture and we are excited to see where Doug takes his company and the impact it will have on our environment.”

As this year’s award recipient, Calico Sol will receive a $25,000 grant from U.S. Bank Foundation along with 12 months of mentorship and programming provided by Evergreen Climate Innovations.

“We’re excited by Doug’s commitment to tackling an industry with a long-overlooked waste problem,” said Dylan O'Reilly, Senior Program Manager at Evergreen Climate Innovations. “It is estimated that, on average, Americans generate 12.1 million tons of furniture waste per year, and that 80% of these items end up in landfills. Calico Sol’s furniture-as-a-service model enables a closed-loop system, where individuals can return their used Calico Sol furniture once it is no longer needed.”

Williams plans to use the money to fund production of a small batch of products for further testing, with a goal of getting to market later this year. To start, Calico Sol is targeting businesses like hotels, universities and offices that are already focused on sustainability.

“Recent studies have shown that over a typical 60-year life span of a building, if you change out furnishings multiple times, the cumulative impact frequently exceeds the greenhouse gas emissions of the structural footprint of the building – sometimes significantly,” said Williams. “Calico Sol is an attempt to keep products out of the landfill and lower the carbon footprint of these buildings using sustainable furniture and interior design.”

Williams is still building out the technical components of his furniture but plans to use QR codes for customers to scan and return their products to the manufacturer once they need replacement. He’d also use technology to physically track the product’s overall life cycle and provide his customers more accurate analysis of their carbon footprint.

This is the third year of the U.S. Bank Foundation Cleantech Inclusion Award. Information on how to apply for the 2023 award will be available later this year.

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