How he's helping to keep the skies clear of pollution one brick at a time

Besides developing eco bricks that do less harm to the environment, InnoCSR's CEO aims to benefit communities and the planet with 'impact technology'

InnoCSR chief executive Sam Yoonsuk Lee (third from left) with his company's brick manufacturer partners in Nepal. Mr Lee is working on reducing air pollution in South Asia with InnoCSR's Good Bricks System. PHOTO: SAM YOONSUK LEE

When you think of Nepal, the first thing that comes to mind is the majestic Himalayas mountains outlined against the blue skies and the crisp mountain air. But in recent years, the air quality in Kathmandu has deteriorated as pollution levels in Nepal have reached 4.9 times higher than recommended by the World Health Organisation.

That changed during the Covid-19 shutdown in Nepal in February 2020 when economic activity was curbed and local newspapers published photos that showed Mount Everest visible from the Kathmandu valley.

One man aims to keep the skies clear in the country. Mr Sam Yoonsuk Lee, founder and chief executive of InnoCSR Group, is helping to reduce pollution from the brick industry, one of the biggest polluters in Nepal, by introducing technology to produce bricks without the need to burn.

“We are working actively with the manufacturers to scale up as soon as possible so that Nepal becomes a country free of air pollution from the brick industry,” Mr Lee said.

The 43-year-old executive who hails from South Korea is passionate in his belief that corporate social responsibility (CSR) goes beyond donations and companies and should “walk the talk”.

“You need to integrate your market entry strategy, your product strategy and your global strategy, because at the end of the day your company's products and services are making connections with the society and consumers are part of the society,’’ Mr Lee explained. 

Building the foundation of doing good

Mr Lee’s beliefs that companies can help give back to society led him to start InnoCSR Group in Shanghai a year after he did his MBA at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in 2007.

His interest in CSR started during his college days in Korea University where he got his degree in business administration. The spark intensified after he worked as a private sector fundraising consultant in the United Nations Children’s Fund or UNICEF office in Beijing.

Things came to a head in 2008 when companies scrambled to make donations after the Sichuan earthquake and some ex-clients from his UNICEF days contacted him to ask about strategy and direction.

“Because there were a lot of different stakeholders, the media started ranking companies based on the size of donations.

Everyone wanted some sort of strategy and that was when they called me and asked me if I was interested in starting a company and taking the job,” Mr Lee said. “That was the beginning of InnoCSR.”

Developing technology that leaves an impact

After providing CSR consulting services from 2008 to 2018 to clients including multinational Fortune 500 companies such as Volkswagen and Adidas, as well as Chinese companies involved in the One Road One Belt initiative, and Korean conglomerates like Samsung, Mr Lee and his co-founder Sungwon Choi decided it was time to take InnoCSR to the next phase of “Doing Well by Doing Good”, which is the company’s motto.

The company started a new initiative in 2018 to develop what Mr Lee calls “Impact Technology” or “technology that has a potential to bring positive environmental, social and financial impact to the community, which were not able to be utilised due to the lack of market knowledge, funding and right connections”.

InnoCSR chief executive Sam Yoonsuk Lee plans to introduce the Good Bricks System technology to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh next year. PHOTO: SAM YOONSUK LEE

He said they were inspired to do this after some clients from developing countries wanted green technology that is simple and affordable for use in their home countries.

The research led to InnoCSR developing a process which it calls the “Good Bricks System”, which uses its proprietary soil stabiliser chemical developed in South Korea that lets brick kiln owners make non-fired “clean bricks” without harmful environmental and social impact.

The technology is significant as South Asia is home to nearly a quarter of total global brick production. In Nepal, traditional brick making requires approximately 1,600 kilns to burn nearly 1 million tons of coal every year. These kilns release black carbon, the second-biggest global warming pollutant after carbon dioxide, and affects health and visibility and accelerates the melting of Himalayan snow and ice.

Mr Lee said its non-fired brick technology will help reduce about a gigaton of carbon emission if it is applied globally.

In 2020, after a two-year pilot in Nepal, InnoCSR signed agreements with local brick makers to adopt its Good Brick System technology. It expects to reach agreements with the largest local brick manufacturers in all 16 strategic regions in the country by the end of this year, just as the speed of adoption has accelerated following the end of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Going beyond Nepal’s brick industry

Buoyed by the success in Nepal, Mr Lee is pressing ahead with plans to introduce the Good Bricks System technology to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh next year. InnoCSR is also getting love calls from companies in Latin America and Africa, which also face similar problems in their brick industries.

As the company expands its green technology initiative, it is going aggressively for fundraising and is now in talks with institutional investors including private equity funds and venture capitalists.

InnoCSR's Good Bricks System uses a special soil stabiliser chemical that is added to a mix of soil and cement to produce its bricks. PHOTO: SAM YOONSUK LEE

Mr Lee had previously relied on funds from friends and families, and had received support and grants from ADB Ventures, the Asian Development Bank’s venture capital arm, for its work in Nepal.

To facilitate the expansion, Lee and his immediate family – his wife who is a violinist and his 10-year-old daughter – relocated to Kuala Lumpur earlier in March as he set the Malaysian capital as the expansion hub to make it easier to access South Asia and to hire talent.

Mr Lee expects InnoCSR, which hires about 20 people across the region, to be more profitable starting next year. He projects US$10 million in revenue growth in 2023, and sees it going up to US$100 million by 2025. The company has also registered carbon credits. At the height of its consulting era in China, the company had about 50 employees.

“There are a lot of problems that we have in the world and the solutions are just not in the hands of the right people, or it's just too expensive at the moment, but the cost will probably come down as we develop more different technologies. We want to become the bridge between these green technologies and developing countries,” he said.

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