Lion's Lair: Hamilton company grows local bamboo

Hamilton-based Ontario Bamboo is growing just as fast as their product. Read about this Lion's Lair finalist here.
Vincent Villanis is the co-founder and CEO of Ontarion Bamboo. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

It was a construction failure that begins the story of how Vincent Villanis started Ontario Bamboo. The co-founder and CEO of Ontario bamboo was working as a mortgage consultant at a local bank.

"It's a funny story," he said. "one day my porch collapsed and I didn't know what to do.

Luckily for Villanis, one of his regular and most valued clients was a contractor. Gary Langelier came to his rescue. A full-home renovation later, Villanis and Langelier realized they both had a green thumb and passion for the environment.

Villanis and Langelier started out with renovating homes that needed a facelift. Then they built homes from the ground up. Soon they realized their eco-friendly mandate was too expensive for a small business.

So, what would make their work less expensive? They found the answer in bamboo.

"Gary went to a conference where a presenter said 'Bamboo is the next Microsoft,'" said Villanis. He added it's a proven way to clean the air of carbon dioxide.

That's where they got the idea to get into the bamboo-growing business full-time. With advice from Villanis' plant pathologist sister-in-law, Ontario Bamboo started culturing bamboo tissue for growth. The company's Stoney Creek greenhouse has 10,000 bamboo plants that can grow year-round.

The man

Sitting in his home office, the sound of Villanis' two young children running around and playing can be faintly heard. His desk is adorned with photos of his 3- and 6-year-old as babies. 'Ontario Bamboo' lean against the walls in the modest space. He is all smiles.

"I grew up in the streets of the Philippines," he said. "Literally." Villanis came to Canada in 2001. He worked as a cook. And studied accounting at Sheridan College. "All my hardships in life gave me the confidence to start a business," he said.

It's no suprise that business involves bamboo. It's in his blood. When Villanis was a young boy, so the story goes, he was a sleepwalker. And one day he wandered into the family's bamboo grove. The trees grew all around his home. He knows bamboo. And so do his kids.

"Sometimes they even teach me a few things," he said with a laugh.

Villanis has made a name for himself as a knowledgeable guy, participating in research locally and internationally. "I'm known as the prodigy son of bamboo around the world," Villanis said. "It means a lot to us that we do what we love," he said. "It's a blessing.

The company

Villanis jokes that the company is growing just as fast as the bamboo. He points to plants two feet high that were just centimetres-tall a few months ago. Since Ontario Bamboo launched last November business has been booming. Are you ready for Bamboo beer?

Ontario Bamboo partnered with Oakville's Trafalger Brewery to develop Bamboo Beer ("Beer with Benefits" is the slogan). Villanis said the LCBO just signed off on their quality assurance documents. The product should be in shelves within the next few months.

The company supplies bamboo to landscape architects and contractors. They're also working with a professor at the University of Guelph to create a bamboo-based sports drink. It'll be the first one to have protein, fibre and silica without sugar or caffeine.

Bamboo could solve problems for organic poultry farmers. His research found using bamboo in chicken feed can increase the bird's weight by 70 per cent. That makes them big enough to produce enough meat to compete with non-organic producers, who use steroids to increase weight, he said.

Their next big partnership is a serious coup - Villanis will provide all the bamboo for China's giant pandas during their five-year stay at the Toronto Zoo.

Soon enough, the greenhouse will also have a biotech research lab adjacent to it. Villanis said Ontario Bamboo will be the first lab in Canada to focus solely on culturing bamboo. And they will accept co-op students from local universities.

Langelier even built the lab with bamboo. He used it in the foundation footing - it's as strong as steel, he said.

"We're built on bamboo fibre, literally," Villanis said.

The Lion's Lair pitch: Why Ontario Bamboo should win

Bamboo has 1500 documented uses, Villanis said. Ontario Bamboo focuses on five. "We want to expand," he said.

But Villanis said his company should win not because of the potential in bamboo products. "We're the true definition of innovation," he said. "We took a product that more than 50 per cent of the world depends on and applied it to life in our own climate."

Langelier and Villanis both emphasize their focus on employment. Bamboo is one of the only plants that can grown on brownfields or sites with toxic waste. It even purifies the soil.

"Think about how many people we can hire," Langelier said, thinking about the possibility of planting bamboo over former landfills. "So many."

But like many of the Lion's Lair finalists, just the idea of being a company with potential in a changing city is an honor for Villanis. "The transformation is happening before our eyes," he said. "We're happy to be a part of it."