Skip to content

NBA Legend Rick Fox’s Next Act: Green Concrete Entrepreneur

Photo Courtesy Partanna

(Bloomberg) —

Rick Fox’s life has had many acts. NBA champion. Hollywood actor. E-sports executive. An Ambassador at Large to the world for the Bahamas, his home nation. And now, concrete entrepreneur. 

It may seem a head-scratching turn for Fox, 54, yet it’s completely fitting with the character of someone who played with the fabled Los Angeles Lakers team that won three consecutive championships, from 2000 to 2002. Fox serially identifies a goal and then just hangs onto it, the way he broke a basketball rim in the 1992 NBA playoffs, when he was playing for the Celtics. You don’t captain a top NBA squad, as he did, without serious leadership skills. 

There may be no bigger challenge than remaking concrete, which is humanity’s most-used substance besides water. The world churns out more than 30 billion tons of the stuff a year and uses it in everything from roads to high rises. The key ingredient is cement, the glue that holds crushed rocks together. While it’s essential to building the modern world, it’s also a major contributor to global warming: Producing cement is responsible for about 6% of all carbon dioxide emissions, according to a recent Rhodium Group estimate.

Fox wants to do something about those emissions with his startup, Partanna Global Inc. He’s the co-founder and chief executive officer of the company, which has offices in the Bahamas. They make concrete by swapping out cement for a proprietary mix containing blast-furnace slag from steel-making, or materials with similar properties, such as volcanic ash. Then they add brine, which is fluid waste from desalination plants, and aggregate, or crushed rocks. The process requires no fossil-fuel burning or analogous emissions from cooking limestone, the company says. Once set, the material absorbs some CO2, flipping the cement equation on its head.

The former NBA star’s startup is competing with dozens of companies, from established giants to ambitious upstarts, trying to clean up a global concrete industry that could near $1 trillion by 2030, according to Allied Market Research

The increasing urgency to address climate change has led a growing number of people to make a career switch in recent years. Fox may be a standout among them. As a celebrity a couple of times over whose home country has felt the devastating impacts of climate change, Fox has both the drive to acquire knowledge and apply it and a personal stake in solving the problems climate change poses. 

With Partanna, he says the technology itself is what matters most.

“We have a formula that is going to change the world for the better,” he says “Focus on that. That’s the star, right?”

Life after the NBA would seem just as charmed for Fox as his basketball career. He’s Hollywood handsome, with an envy-inducing smile that he’s bared in dozens of TV shows and movies in the years since. Meeting him is like shaking hands with a towering six-foot-seven bronze sculpture come to life. 

But what set him on his green concrete journey was a nightmare. Fox grew up in the Bahamas. The azure-watered tourist destination was pummeled by Hurricane Dorian, one of the strongest hurricanes to ever make landfall, in 2019. The storm’s impact still reverberates today in this country of 700 islands spanning over 100,000 square miles of ocean.

Fueled by unusually warm oceans, the storm underwent what scientists call rapid intensification, exploding into a Category 5 cyclone with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour in the waning hours of August. Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas on Sept. 1 and then parked over the islands for two days, with winds that ripped off roofs and storm surge that pulled houses into the sea. 

The storm killed 74 and devastated Great Abaco and Grand Bahama, some of the most populated parts of the Bahamas. The United Nations estimated that 245 people were still missing a year later. Dorian ended up costing $3.4 billion, or about 136% of the Bahamas’ gross domestic product. 

“In two or three days, our whole income was wiped out,” says Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis. Borrowing to pay for recovery has raised the country’s debt to $12.7 billion. Davis lamented the injustice of the Bahamas sinking into debt to pay for climate impacts while “large emitters are getting off scot-free.” 

Fox spearheaded a Bahamian relief organization to deliver goods to stricken communities. But, he says, “you could see that the funds weren’t going to solve the future problem.” With climate change set to make storms more intense, the odds of a Dorian-level catastrophe will only increase. 

Fox says his return to the Bahamas to help compatriots build for a safer future is rooted in how he grew up. His father ran the local ice factory when he was a kid, and the devastation of Dorian reawakened memories of providing people with a critical service. Fox’s father was friendly with Davis’s, and the sons would have met when Fox was too young to remember, Davis said. 

“There was no greater feeling as a young man than watching the entire community of Nassau come to our factory, wait in long lines, for ice,” Fox says. “You felt like you were helping people.”

Selling ice and reinventing home construction for climate change aren’t exactly analogs. But Fox had to start somewhere and he began talking to architects while he was “figuring out how we’re going to rebuild Abaco,” he says. 

He says it was his Hollywood publicist and talent manager, though, who ended up inadvertently steering Fox into the green concrete business when she put him in touch with a Malibu-based architect named Sam Marshall. What convinced Fox to connect with Marshall was a catchy idea that his agent conveyed over the phone: This architect had come up with concrete that breathes like a tree. 

(Marshall stepped away from the company’s day-to-day business in 2023, but “he continues to support the company as a board member,” Partanna said in a statement. He declined to comment for this article, through a company spokesperson.)

“I was thinking to myself, ‘Concrete that acts like a tree? How does that even work?’” Fox recalls. “I walk Wilshire every day, and I see trees busting out of the sidewalk with the concrete. They don’t really get along. To me, it didn’t make sense.”

Fox remembers Marshall telling him he was looking for cementless concrete for countertops and other design flourishes that also had the potential to be greener. 

An accidental discovery delivered a saving grace, according to Partanna: Marshall’s team was experimenting with the concentrated, magnesium-rich brine left over from desalination and blast-furnace slag, a leftover material from steelmaking. A batch of experiments failed, and the team forgot about them. 

Only months later did serendipitous testing by University of Wisconsin students during a teaching project reveal the test concrete mixes “were much, much stronger than we anticipated,” said Kevin MacDonald, Partanna’s director of engineering. That was 2017, and it became the foundation for the startup.

Partanna Global was incorporated in 2021. The idea was to make green concrete, mold it into brick pavers and sell them. Interest in the Bahamas and Saudi Arabia — both places with substantial desalination — accelerated interest in the company years faster than Fox said he expected.  The company’s growth prospects took an unforeseen turn upward when Fox visited Davis after his 2021 election. By the end of 2022, the two signed an agreement at global UN climate talks that Partanna would build up to 1,000 homes a year in the Bahamas. They’ll start with a goal of 29 more this year, while concrete production ramps up.

Left alone, concrete will pull some CO2 out of the air. It’s called “carbon reuptake.” So in the broadest possible sense, both trees and concrete belong to a larger basket of CO2-absorbing things. But the process of making and using magnesium-based concrete like Partanna’s supercharges things. First, it eliminates the emissions required to superheat rocks and cook them into cement. Then, it also helps remove more CO2 than traditional concrete because it absorbs the gas right into its molecular structure, turning them into carbonate without needing extra energy.

Partanna Global wants to produce nearly 1.5 million cubic yards of concrete a year, which would remove an expected 644,000 tons of CO2 equivalent, according to the company’s documentation with Verra, a nonprofit carbon offset registry. 

The company expects to sell offsets, to cover expenses and earn some revenue, and also to share carbon credits with the Bahamas, to help low-income, low-carbon home buyers subsidize down payments. A million square feet of Partanna blocks could generate 28,350 carbon credits. A standard house made with Partanna concrete may generate 183 carbon credits, for avoiding cement emissions and absorbing CO2 from the air. 

One of Partanna’s operational advantages is that it’s “plug and play,” Fox says. Factories can swap out cement for the startup’s alternative mix, mix it with brine and aggregate and let it start to set.

Partanna says that its product can be cost-comparable to Portland cement, the main source of concrete emissions. Because its product isn’t cement, Fox says using his product can offer business benefits beyond carbon. It can insulate small- to medium-sized customers from rising cement prices.

The company has not disclosed its current valuation. Its first investor, Matt Cheng of Cherubic Ventures, wrote Partanna’s first check and has invested $12 million so far.

Partanna Global shares detailed environmental life cycle assessments with potential customers and investors but not the public. That’s true of many startups, which makes it challenging to vet specific claims. 

Some magnesium-based concrete alternatives are technically — and even commercially — promising, but “the patent landscape is crowded,” says John Provis, professor of cement materials science and engineering at the University of Sheffield who’s written about the 150-year history of magnesium-based concrete.

He says the quality of the concrete depends on the source of the magnesium oxide, the chosen processes and technologies, and Partanna Global hasn’t published enough information for him to assess the startup’s product.

Fox and his team of 25 staff members, consultants, advisers and others in the Bahamas, Saudi Arabia and China, are unfazed by a crowded landscape and scientific skepticism they’ve encountered along the way. 

When he first met officials from Top-Werk GmbH, a German industrial equipment manufacturer, Fox says they responded with the reluctance expected of a major company learning about a green advanced materials startup. After two years of conversation and testing, TopWerk in January announced a partnership, saying it “is formally endorsing Partanna as the most advanced green concrete solution in the market.”

An industrial zone near the Bahamas’ Port of Nassau has remnants of past uses: abandoned boats, large pieces of industrial machinery and shipping containers are strewn across the piers. Ten acres were mostly cleared and remain spare, except for two things, neat rows of 90,000 concrete building blocks, which don’t look out of place. What does, though, is a 1,250-square-foot, three-bedroom home, landscaped and furnished, but alone on an otherwise abandoned gray lot. 

This year, Partanna Global hopes to complete 29 more homes there, each made of 3,000 Partanna blocks. Desalination plants in the Bahamas will provide brine for production and research and development there. While the Bahamas is Partanna’s beachhead, the firm has bigger designs beyond the island nation.

Partanna Arabia — like the Bahamas operation, a subsidiary — has partnered with the Saudi Arabian real-estate developer ROSHN, exploring ways to use brine from area desalination to make cement-less concrete. The Gulf state is planning to embark on a massive infrastructure project in the coming decades. Though progress has recently slowed a bit, any new development will need a lot of concrete. The financial headwinds aren’t affecting Partanna’s ability to find partners in Saudi Arabia, the company said.

Partanna is planning to build four factories in the next year and a half, in the Gulf, the US and the Bahamas.

Fox found his way home after more than 20 years in the wilderness of Los Angeles. And other Bahamians abroad are following him, which is exactly the human “capacity building” that Davis says his country needs to rebuild.

In San Francisco, Aly Boyce spent a week in desperate uncertainty about the fate of her father after Hurricane Dorian hit. A doctor on Great Abaco Island, her father ended up surviving the storm with only minor injuries even as water bubbled through the air conditioner vents on his house that sits on 12-foot stilts. Seeing the impacts of climate change literally hit home flipped a switch for her, just as it did for Fox. 

“I really feel called to do something in climate tech,” she says.  

Wanting to help the Bahamas narrowed the list of options to do so significantly. Last year, she reached out to a Partanna Global staff member to inquire about the company. In January, she became the startup’s director of new business. 

It was a return home to work for someone she felt like she already knew. After all, she’d learned about Rick Fox in Bahamian history class in sixth grade.

To contact the author of this story:
Eric Roston in New York at

© 2024 Bloomberg L.P.


Back To Top