Reflecting on a transformative 15 years, looking forward to the next.
This week, Ecovative marks our 15th birthday 🎉 We're spending nearly all of our waking hours these days scaling up production of mycelium materials, but this is a great chance to celebrate and reflect on the journey so far. 15 years is an achievement, and in a cutting edge field like biotechnology it's long enough to have made a difference. At the same time, there is still so much to look forward to. But first, some thoughts on where we've been.
Eben Bayer (L) and Gavin McIntyre, co-founders of Ecovative.
In 2007, a pair of optimistic engineering students in upstate New York (That's us, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, hi!) had an idea for a company that could help save the environment. Our plan was to replace plastic packing foam and wasteful construction materials with compostable alternatives made from mycelium, the 'root structure' of mushrooms. It started with a palm-sized puck of mycelium material, grown under the bed in Eben's dorm room at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He showed it to our influential professor, Burt Swersey, who immediately saw potential in the idea, convincing us to take the plunge and start a company, going so far as to become our first investor.
Burt Swersey holds the first mycelium composite material grown by Eben Bayer.
Even before the business officially launched, people were excited about our idea for mycelium materials. We won a string of business plan competitions, a few thousand dollars here and a few thousand there, until in 2008 our proposal won a half a million Euros in a competition overseas. It was a vote of confidence, a shot in the arm, and a mandate to bring the field of mycelium materials to market.
Ecovative turns mushroom mycelium into sustainable materials for modern products.
Ecovative first pursued insulation and construction materials, but quickly found that we could make the most difference by tackling packing foam. Our first MycoComposite product became the basis of Mushroom® Packaging, a compostable alternative to Styrofoam and other plastic shipping materials. What we were doing was outside of most people's normal experience, but that novelty was part of how we made an impression (a cameo on CSI: New York didn't hurt). Being able to touch this mixture of mycelium and agricultural leftovers, like straw and hemp hurd, made the point better than any words or images could. The material made a statement: light, durable, unusual, even beautiful, fit for human designs while being a product of nature. Tossing it out translated to soil nutrition instead of more pollution.
A slice of pure mycelium material, produced in an AirMycelium vertical farm.
MycoComposite connected the dots for a lot of people, anyone who saw our materials also saw their potential. Early on, we found opportunities for partnership with leading companies such as Dell, who used our materials to protect their servers for shipping. We also undertook research collaborations with Ikea and Steelcase, to test materials for furniture, as well as with DARPA and the EPA. As we charted the early materials possibilities for mycelium, we were also building a business thanks to the growing market for environmentally friendly products.
Having customers meant producing at scale, a make-or-break challenge for any company. When dealing with products that come from living systems, the challenge is multiplied, and through a trial-by-fire of iteration we built our supply chains and refined our technologies to become a viable commercial mycelium company, the first in the world. Over those early years, Ecovative established itself as synonymous with the nascent field of mycelium materials, and began building the capacity and the clientele to take things to the next level.
AirMycelium grows large format sheets of 100% pure mycelium material.
Our focus turned to the next big technological leap: pure mycelium materials. We first developed our AirMycelium platform in 2012, with the idea of producing materials for the apparel industry. By growing mycelium above the substrate, we learned to mimic the structure of plastic foams, leather hides, even whole cuts of meat. With the development of this one new technology, numerous new market opportunities presented themselves. Rather than choose one of them at the expense of the others, Ecovative did what mycelium itself does when presented with a complex situation, and branched out.
Mycelia are complex living structures with many useful properties – discovering and mastering their commercial applications is what we do best. As the AirMycelium technology took shape, it made sense to grow new divisions and companies that could focus on the various markets that it could address. MyForest Foods launched in 2020, focusing first on the pork market with MyBacon, its popular first product. Forager, launched earlier this year, focuses on fashion, apparel and automotive applications for its leather-like hides and technical foams, developed in cooperation with world-famous brands. That means Ecovative can remain focused on supporting these efforts through our Foundry, a dedicated lab that does high throughput testing and development of new mycelium materials.
"In a sense, it feels like the rest of the world is catching up; it's also a sign that the moment has arrived for reconnecting what we use and consume with the cycles of nature."
Meanwhile, we're still making Mushroom Packaging — in fact, we're making more than ever. This year, we break ground on not one but three huge new vertical farms, expanding mycelium production capacity by an order of magnitude. Now at more than 80 employees — more than twice as many as last year — our company is also growing and diversifying, the metaphorical mycelial network expanding and sprouting more and more mushrooms.
The mycelia of different mushroom species are ideal for different applications.
For all the growth and change within our company, maybe just as relevant is how much the world around us has changed, including in some very positive ways. People are waking up not only to fungi, and all their important roles in nature and amazing potential, but also to the urgent need to act on climate change. Over recent years, we've seen a dramatic increase of interest in the sustainable material solutions we offer, and fungi generally. In a sense, it feels like the rest of the world is catching up; it's also a sign that the moment has arrived for reconnecting what we use and consume with the cycles of nature.
Moving forward, it's clear that biology is going to play a growing role in how humans make the things we need and consume, at scale. The need to stop producing single-use plastics, to curb fossil fuels and other forms of extraction, has set the stage for a whole slate of solutions and innovations that stand to change all our lives for the better. Climate change is more of a pressing concern than ever before, and at the same time, the amount of energy and invention being applied to the problem is greater than ever. This gives us hope about the future, for our company and for the planet. After 15 years, the arc is clearly pointing up for biomaterials and sustainable industry, and Ecovative is poised to take a leading role in the emerging green economy. So let's raise a glass gratefully to the past, but also towards a bright future.