In 2020, a Kickstarter campaign for a company called NetZero went viral. The pitch was simple and delightfully appealing: Throw a bath bomb-like ball of mycelium into your yard, water it like any other plant, and enjoy the CO2-sequestering power of mushrooms. The project received favorable coverage from Forbes, Inhabitat, and even from Fast Company. The company, launched by a man named Joseph Kelly, has raised more than $150,000 dollars to date.
New reporting from BuzzFeed News, however, suggests that NetZero was a scam. In a sprawling investigation, reporter Zahra Hirji alleges that Kelly lied about the company’s partnerships and third-party verification, misinterpreted research, and threatened critics who raised questions about NetZero’s scientific claims.
The trouble began when mycelium experts and former employees, taking note of NetZero’s success, began to voice questions about the incredible claims behind the project. Christian Schwarz, a research associate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote a blog post detailing his concerns, arguing that mycelium orbs couldn’t capture as much carbon as NetZero claimed, and might even increase the amount of carbon emissions produced by a customer’s lawn.
In response, BuzzFeed reports, Kelly threatened to sue Schwarz, along with four others who had signed on to his blog post. He sent similar legal threats to at least four former Netzero “employees or collaborators,” and even BuzzFeed News itself for “spreading false information” in the course of its investigation. (Fast Company received a similar threat from a lawyer representing Kelly after being contacted by Schwarz.)
Kelly’s alleged intimidation tactics also took the form of more serious accusations: According to BuzzFeed, the NetZero founder is suspected of having created a fake 19-year-old persona who accused Schwarz of rape. The allegation mirrors claims made by one of Kelly’s former clients, who previously sued Kelly for posing as a 19-year-old woman online and “accusing the client of rape.” (The client and the business that employed Kelly at that time reportedly settled out of court in 2015.) BuzzFeed also found “nine other allegedly fake identities linked to Kelly and his businesses,” including an instance in 2016 in which Kelly’s own lawyer accused him of perjury.
NetZero is not the only Kelly-linked company facing questions. The Navajo Bee Project, which aimed to use mushrooms to help bee populations by reducing soil contamination, has been accused of failing to direct fundraising dollars to the communities it was intended to serve. In the case of the Sacred Rivers Climate Project, which claimed to employ women in disadvantaged communities to plant trees inoculated with mycelium, Kelly ended up threatening to sue an arborist for defamation.
The website for another Kelly company, HiveMind, is now under “maintenance,” and the Sacred Rivers Climate Project site was set to private. The Kickstarter for NetZero includes an update from April 19, 2021 that it has run into delays and will no longer “be making orbs,” but will still ship mycelium to backers in June.
Kelly denied to BuzzFeed News most of the allegations in the article, but did not respond to the outlet’s request for comment about when Kickstarter backers would receive their orders or “whether he was retiring.” Kickstarter said in a statement to Fast Company that the Netzero project did not violate its rules as it doesn’t investigate creators or projects beyond “determining if the project meets our project guidelines.”
Update: After this article was published, Joseph Kelly contacted Fast Company to reiterate that he believes Buzzfeed’s allegations about NetZero are “false.” He also provided the link to a website that provides a longer rebuttal.