Can Mushrooms From This Company Reduce Two of the Planet's Biggest Threats?
"Identify one of the world's most pressing problems and develop a solution." Co-founder Gavin McIntyre discusses the edible, sustainable, biodegradable mushroom with many uses.
Ecovative Design's Purpose: Supporting Life on Earth
Ecovative is a company that has one solution to two of the most dangerous processes to our planet: plastic production and animal agriculture. Single-use plastics are a leading source of physical pollution that introduces toxins into the environment; meanwhile, animal agriculture contributes the most to global warming and depletes a lot of the world's water resources and arable land.
As more companies and consumers demand alternatives that will reduce these issues plaguing Planet Earth, Ecovative Design is researching and creating better materials. Sustainable, adaptable, and bio-based, the material Ecovative makes is mainly mycelium, which are essentially the roots of mushrooms. Depending on the way the mycelium is grown and processed, we can control the density, structure, texture, and strength of the material. Ecovative's materials are biodegradable after its intended life cycle, and they can be grow in as little as 9 days, making it a healthy alternative that requires less water than raising livestock or even many plants.
What's even more exciting about Ecovative is the practical applications of their Mycelium material.
Alternative to plastic and other packaging material:
- Mushroom packaging: mycelium and a hemp byproduct that feels like a styrofoam but is 100% compostable
- MycoComposite: self-assembling material grown in just 9 days. Has the highest certification for sustainable goods (C2C gold)
- MycoFlex beauty applicators: Ecovative creates makeup sponges, pedicure toe spacers, eye masks, and spa slippers designed for salons, spas, and beauty centers. Cruelty-free, latex-free, and petrol-free
Changing the fashion and textiles industry:
- 100% vegan leather: this leather looks and feels real, and it's grown in 9 days instead of years for animal skins. Can be grown in any shape and size, eliminating any excess material waste
- Foam for jackets, footwear, and backpack straps: strong, heat-resistant, insulating, and breathable foam material that's resilient and 100% natural
And most interesting of all, it's a secret ingredient for plant-based food
- Atlast mycelium: gives structure to plant-based alternatives to meat and is adaptable in texture and flavor
An Interview with Gavin McIntyre, Co-Founder and Business Development Director at Ecovative Design
Can you give us a nontechnical crash course on the technology you created?
"At Ecovative, we use mycelium, the vegetative tissue or root-like structure of mushrooms, as a grown resin or glue. We purchase local biomass that typically come from within 100 miles of our facility, which serve as the nutrition or food source for the mycelium.
The biomass is disinfected, and a trace amount of mycelium is introduced into the biomass. Over the course of 4 - 9 days, depending on the product we're growing, the mycelium derive all of its energy for growth from the biomass. Depending on the biomass and incubation conditions employed, we can grow a wide range of natural structures that can serve as alternatives to plastic foams or even meat products such as steak. Typically, at the end of the growth process, we will dry and kill the mycelium so we don't have to worry about it re-animating. All of our products are entirely bio-based, non-toxic, and home compostable."
How did you find yourself at Ecovative, and what was it like starting out?
"Eben and I founded Ecovative our senior year of college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. We were mechanical engineering and product design students in Burt L. Swersey's Inventor's Studio course. Burt was a fantastic mentor, and focused his class on "not doing nonsense". Burt directed us to identify one of the world's most pressing problems and to develop a solution over the period of his 16 week course. The problem that we identified was the ubiquity of fossil fuel derived materials in our everyday lives, and the tremendous impact these material have on our planet at the end of their useful life.
We generated some initial product prototypes by acquiring mushroom cultivation spawn off the internet, and developing material recipes based on available agricultural residue. These early prototypes were tested in laboratories at our university and government facilities (the National Institute of Standards and Technology), which confirmed their performance. The biomaterials benchmarked quite nicely against conventional plastic foams, including having the benefits of being inherently biodegradable and flame resistant.
We began the company in the Business Incubator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. We financed the company early on with support for our mentor, Burt Swersey, business plan competitions, and grants (the Small Business Innovation Research Program). These proceeds allowed us to grow our technical team, including our first Mycologist, Sue Van Hook, and focus on our first addressable market. We were originally focused on the building and construction industry, but then pivoted into packaging as the volumes were serviceable from our pilot facility, the value was higher, and this market could strategically leverage the biodegradability of the product. That is how Mushroom® Packaging came to being. Since that time we have developed several other product lines."
What are your company's values and missions, and how do you incorporate them into your day-to-day?
"We actually publish our mission and values on our website (which you can find here). We evaluate our corporate goals and team no less than annually based on these values, and we use them to guide our decision making (markets to address, partnerships we may foster, team building). When we make new hires to the team, we endeavor to ensure that all new members live-up to our values and will be a solid cultural fit for our team. Our team is motivated by the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on our planet, and that's why we come to work everyday."
Where can we expect to see Ecovative products in the future?
"Animal agriculture is one of the largest consumers of land and water while being responsible for the second most greenhouse gas emissions after the energy sector. Animals are cultivated for food (meat) and their materials (leather, collagen, etc). Ecovative launched and licensed a leather alternative in 2018, which brought to light the larger need for animal meat alternatives.
There are a number of products that currently address ground meat, such as hamburger and sausage. But ground meat accounts for less than 30% of all the meat consumed worldwide, and approximately 10% of the total value. If we are going to have a meaningful impact on animal agriculture we need to develop alternatives to whole-cuts of meat such as bacon, steak, and fillets.
Mushrooms have been used a meat alternatives for decades since they provide a great texture analog to whole-cuts of meat. Mushrooms are always in the shape of mushrooms, however, until now. At Ecovative, we're growing the mycelium of gourmet mushrooms in shapes and sizes that are larger than most whole-cuts of meat. By including some other ingredients, we can simulate the texture, structure, flavor and odor of meat products such as bacon. We call this technology the Atlast™ ingredient platform, and we believe it could be the missing ingredient needed to displace more meat."
What's the best way someone reading this interview can help your company right now?
"Ecovative's products are just one of many solutions that serve to address our environment challenges. As a person with purchasing power, we make powerful decisions when we open our wallets. That's not just the products that we choose to purchase, but equally as important are the products we do not purchase. Varying degrees of socioeconomic position impact our ability to make these decisions as well.
But if we're all cognizant of the impact of our everyday consumption and purchases, the increment change of many can induce a paradigm shift. The largest industries on earth that tend to be environmentally burdensome are economically effective because they have scale and intrenched value chain infrastructure. For a new entrant to break-in, there needs to be broad consumer adoption and pull."
What has been a moment that made you think "yes. this is why I do what I do"
"There have been so many. One experience that had a tremendous impact on me was about seven years ago when I went to visit a large OEM that had recently instituted a "landfill free" policy for a number of their factories. They were interested in our protective packaging product since they were using a plastic foam (polypropylene) that could not be easily recycled. In order to meet their landfill free requirements, they were amassing large volumes of this plastic foam post use and just storing it! What a fire hazard and a waste of real-estate (but what is a landfill after all).
The mountains of plastic foam reinforced for me that this was not economically or environmentally sustainable (or responsible), and what we were doing was important for the planet and other businesses."
Support Ecovative here at ecovativedesign.com where you can learn more about materials' real-world applications, buy mycelium packaging solutions, and order mycelium material kits to grow your own creations.