Walk around coastal North Carolina and you’ll likely see large patches of rock or concrete walls on slopes and shorelines. This common method is relatively effective in preventing erosion, but it comes at a cost—not only in dollars, but also at the expense of the area’s natural species growth.
Raleigh-based Natrx, on the other hand, uses nature to protect infrastructure. Rather than dumping rocks or building walls, the startup uses technology to manufacture and strategically place what the founders call “exo-structures.” These structures encourage natural growth, which is an even more effective protector of the shoreline against erosion than the blunter measures it replaces.
“If you try to battle Mother Nature, you’re likely to lose that battle,” said Leonard Nelson, one of four Co-Founders of Natrx. “So what we’re trying to do is harness Mother Nature.”
Natrx’s structures are designed with more surface area and with internal voids to facilitate the growth of biomass, including vegetation, shellfish and other animal life. Past projects have created more than 100 million pounds of shellfish and wetlands species.
Nelson co-founded the company along with Nick Brady, Matt Campbell and Tyler Ortego in 2018. Nelson and Brady had worked together at a previous software startup, and Campbell and Ortego were evaluating business models to scale up their patented method to produce nature-based protective structures for man-made assets such as bridges, roads and high-voltage power lines.
When clients come to Natrx, the company brings on a team of engineers and ecologists who understand the unique needs of the species and structural limitations in their area. They create a design with their software platform, print the product with their patented 3D printer, and monitor the project with an API that is used by both Natrx and the client.
Natrx has projects across the country in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Louisiana, Florida, and Hawaii. They’ve been bootstrapped so far, and they’re profitable with revenue up 700% from last year. Now, they plan to use some new funding to scale up more quickly and safely.
On May 14, Natrx was one of six companies chosen out of 142 applicants across the state for a $50K SEED grant from NC IDEA. Nelson said this was their second time applying for the grant. What they learned from applying the first time—as well as their four-month stint in the New Orleans-based Idea Village accelerator powered by Shell GameChanger that ended earlier this month—helped them refine their value proposition, Nelson said.
Nelson said they focused their grant application on what they call “S cubed”—speed, scale and safety. Their business model uses a direct channel to commercial businesses and an indirect channel to the public sector to offer three tech-enabled services: digital design, digital production and digital monitoring.
“The idea is that we want to get smarter about how we manage our shorelines, how we manage our coastal communities, and we use those three digital services to do things better,” Nelson said.
Nelson also talked about the geographical areas that their business serves. While technology pulls a lot of capital and talent to urban centers in the state, like Mecklenburg, Wake and Durham counties, Natrx works primarily on the coast.
He said for every dollar of revenue Natrx makes, about four dollars of revenue goes to local laborers, ecologists and contractors, which helps restore coastal economies.
“We feel like it’s important that we tell the story of how we can help not just protect infrastructure on the coast,” Nelson said, “but really help do it in a way that supports the people on the coast themselves.”