Looking for signs of hope that the Puget Sound region will survive a recession, I ended up in Auburn last week, in one of those faceless...

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Looking for signs of hope that the Puget Sound region will survive a recession, I ended up in Auburn last week, in one of those faceless industrial parks alongside Highway 167.

That’s the home of Forest Concepts, a fast-growing, visionary young company that’s landing huge national customers, licensing its intellectual property, talking to strategic investors and luring sharp engineers from state universities. The deceptively sophisticated company was started in 1998 by managers from nearby Weyerhaeuser. They created what’s basically a private research group commercializing and licensing inventions as fast as it can.

They also found a niche technology that may become part of the infrastructure supporting alternative-energy plants.

It’s groovy stuff, but don’t look for foosball tables or a gourmet chef. Workplace perks at Forest Concepts include power tools, a forklift and a radio blasting classical music.

The lobby is furnished with rustic benches made of peeled logs, one of the company’s product lines.

Another key product — bales of shredded scrap wood used for erosion control — is stacked in a loading dock that doubles as a production line and development lab.

There’s a long history of Northwest companies finding creative ways to use small trees and byproducts from the timber industry. There’s also a tradition of tech companies anticipating trends and focusing more on infrastructure than on end-users.

Forest Concepts is both. It’s also a nice reminder of the region’s diversity and its supply of smart engineers.

Those bales are made of a carefully developed material called “WoodStraw,” which is spread by hand or dropped from helicopters into sensitive areas, particularly after wildfires.

WoodStraw won’t bring farm weeds into the forest or blow away as easily as hay. It’s also a green product made of postindustrial waste.

Chief Technology Officer Jim Dooley, who spent 18 years at Weyerhaeuser, invented a machine that makes WoodStraw. The “muncher,” as Dooley calls it, shreds waste material from plywood mills — unusable veneer strips called “fishtails” because of their shape.

Forest Concepts proved the market by making WoodStraw itself — sales boomed during recent wildfires — and now it’s exploring joint ventures that may put munchers at sites such as the Colville tribe’s Omak plywood mill.

In 2006 the company hired former biotech executive Mike Perry as chief executive and found angel investors.

It now has eight employees, plus temporary production workers. Sales doubled the past two years and should hit $2.5 million in 2008.

With help from a federal grant, it’s extending the muncher into a new product that converts tree trimmings and other “urban biomass” into dense bundles that are more efficient to transport than the piles of chips produced by today’s chippers.

It sounds simple, but Dooley explained that “urban biomass bales” improve the economics of trucking biomass created in urban areas — King County produces 300,000 tons a year — to remote energy facilities.

Dooley guessed early on that it wouldn’t make sense to use corn and other food crops to produce ethanol, and that there would be opportunities in the supply infrastructure.

“The trick is having the technology and being visible so when it all converges, we’re at the right place at the right time,” he said.

Dooley’s son is a manager at Microsoft. I haven’t met him, but I’ll bet they sound a lot alike.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.