From forming part of ancient medicinal concoctions to Michelin star menus' centerpieces, mushrooms have been ubiquitous in their utility.
Yet, what if mushrooms more commonly appeared in packaging and fashion houses than in herbal remedies and risottos. That is the dream of Ecovative Design, a biomaterial company based in Troy, New York.
Founded in 2007 by Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, Ecovative Design's mission is to grow everyday materials that support and enhance the planet. With over 40 parents in 31 countries, Ecovative manufactures many materials and composite materials from the root structure of mushrooms, mycelium.
As Eben Bayer explained, "I use biology to solve important environmental challenges by growing safe and healthy new materials as well as envisioning creative ways to use natural technology at industrial scales".
Eben Bayer - Founder of Ecovative Design
Using their mycelium foundry (pictured below), a 35,000 square foot facility located in Green Island, New York, Ecovative mastered their bio-fabrication processes to cater to the specific material characteristics sought after by clients. Their ability to control porosity, textile strength, resilience, fiber orientation and other attributes allows their products to be suitable for a diverse range of needs.
Ecovative Design’s mycelium Foundry
In a recent report on the alternative plastic packaging market, the sector was forecast to grow from $61.23 billion in 2020 to $71.08 billion in 2021, at an exceptionally high CAGR of 16.10%. This growth reflects the continuing demand for products that move away from plastics, a material that's become a symbol of broader environmental issues.
Ecovative's eco-friendly alternative to Styrofoam, a petroleum-based, non-recyclable product, has seen a massive increase in demand.
Myco CompositeTM is Ecovative's patented biomaterial which utilizes mycelium as a self-assembling biological binder for agricultural byproducts.
The production process is outlined in an introduction to mushroom packaging. Ecovative's products are made from two ingredients; mycelium and another agricultural byproduct, such as hemp hurd.
The process itself takes 7 days:
- The client’s packaging specifications are used to determine the shape of the mycelium.
- Mycelium and an agricultural foodstock, like hemp hurd, is put into specifically shaped growth trees where the mycelium will grow for 4 days.
- The packaging is then removed from the growth trees and left for a further 2 days.
- Once these 2 days are up, the mushroom packaging is dehydrated for 24 hours to stunt further growth.
- The process is complete within 7 days and the mushroom packaging is ready for use.
The packaging works effectively as a Styrofoam alternative and is fully home compostable, decomposing in around 30 days in soil. These features offer consumers and businesses a sustainable alternative to Styrofoam.
Magical Mushroom Company, one of the licensed manufacturers and distributors of Myco CompositeTM packaging, has partnered with sustainably minded brands like Seedlip (pictured below). Seedlip, the market leader in distilled non-alcoholic spirits, used mushroom packaging for eco-friendly gifts. Using Ecovative's technology, Magical Mushroom Company was able to grow this packaging in their vertical growing system in just seven days.
Ecovative’s Myco CompositeTM packaging being used for Seedlip gifts
Due to Myco CompositeTM's utility and sustainability, Ecovative has seen significant demand for both the product and the licences for its manufacturing. Currently, the primary licence holders distributing the Myco CompositeTM packaging are:
- Magic Mushroom Company (UK), supplying mycelium-based packaging to the UK and EU.
- Paradise Packaging Company (California) - the main hub for growth and distribution of mushroom packaging in the United States.
- Grown.Bio (Netherlands) manufactures packaging and interior design products using mycelium.
- BioFab, the only company based in Australasia using mushroom packaging as an alternative to traditional toxic materials.
Packaging has formed the core of Ecovative's business, as it has partnered with leading brands like Dell, Ikea, Biomason, and Sealed Air. These partnerships have led to Ecovative shipping over £1 million pounds worth of mushroom packaging products as of April 2020.
With Ecovative recently succeeding in gaining $60 million US dollars (USD) in Series D funding, its ambitions to boost production up to ten times will continue to allow its products to challenge less-sustainable alternatives.
Eben, who began growing mushrooms as a college student, is a self-professed visionary. Beyond Ecovative, Ebon's interests concern flying boats, electric tractors, and building and operating an off-grid home and farm. This vision, driven by the belief that mycelium-derived materials could be applied to do thousands of things, has developed far beyond the packaging industry.
ForagerTM Hides, another Ecovative material made from tough mycelium fibers, looks to offer an eco-friendlier and more sustainable alternative to leather derived from animal hides. Driven by the belief that the 'only way to improve on nature - is with nature', Ecovative's Hides offers manufacturers an eco-friendlier alternative to traditional leather.
As pictured below, the ForagerTM Hides are 'tunable, scalable and ready to tan' sheets of up to 20 feet in length. As Ecovative explains, one advantage is that these hides can be grown in nine days compared to the long months or years it takes to raise livestock.
ForagerTM Hide by Ecovative
Ecovative is looking to partner with fashion brands and partners willing to use their alternative vegan leather to produce products. Through this process, they offer advice and design support on creating production facilities at scale.
Highlighting the true diversity and ingenuity of Ecovative's mycelium products, they have also developed a MycoFlexTM material for the fashion and cosmetic industries. The MycoFlex functions as a high-performance, non-toxic, vegan foam that biodegrades at the end of service. This foam can be implemented in trainers, apparel, and as a material to apply cosmetics.
Beyond fashion, the foam itself functions incredibly effectively as a non-toxic, natural insulating material, as Ecovative's construction of a small house in 2013 demonstrated.
Ecovative has exemplified mycelium-derived products' versatility, utility, and applicability, challenging less sustainable and eco-friendly materials.
Peter McCoy, author of 'Radical Mycology: A Treatise on Seeing and Working with Fungi' was surprised that it'd taken so long for mushrooms to be viewed and experimented with in this way. Indeed NASA, researching potential materials to build houses on the Moon and Mars, noted that mycelia's qualities make it a plausible material to use. As part of the myco-architecture project, various objects and materials were built using the material (see the picture below).
n 2019, the IPCC's Special Report on Climate Change and Land estimated that the agriculture sector is responsible for up to 8.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions and a further 14.5% from land-use change, such as deforestation for food production. The meat industry has a high carbon footprint due to the amount of methane produced. Bacon, a staple of many Western cuisines, has an estimated carbon footprint of around 7.9kg CO2e for every kilogram of pig meat, the equivalent of a car driving 18.25 miles.
As a study by researchers from the Oxford Martin School found, a global switch to diets that relied on fruit and vegetables rather than meat could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds, avoid climate damages of $1.5 trillion USD and save up to 8 million lives by 2050.
Atlast, using Ecovative's mycelium technology, has figured out how to domesticate specialty mushrooms to grow them in slabs at a commercial scale. Using solid-state fermentation, Atlast has created aerial mycelium in large structures allowing them to make un-processed, plant-based meat.
Developed by Eben at Ecovative, Atlast is a new company offering mycelium products as sustainable alternatives to meat. The process takes 10 days from spore to slab. As pictured below, the slabs of the product are then sliced, infused with seasonings, cooked, covered in coconut fat, and then packaged.
Atlast’s mycelium-derived plant-based meat.
Atlast launched its first alternative plant-based meat, a mushroom-based bacon alternative, in November 2020. The product is sold at the Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, with a 6oz package retailing for $5.99.
It takes 575 gallons of water to produce one pound of pork; Atlast's bacon alternative uses only 1.25 gallons of water to grow the same amount of product.
Driven by finding solutions that will benefit the environment and society, Atlast's mushroom-based products offer a vegan, sustainable alternative to much-loved meat products.
With many more alternative plan-based meat products planned, Eben is right to claim: "We're just scratching the surface." Whether consumers will be so enthusiastic towards mushroom alternatives to meat is another question.
Ecovative has become the market leader in developing alternative mushroom-based products for the packaging, fashion, and food industry. Using innovative processes with mycelium, they have succeeded in partnering with leading global firms. With increased funding of 60 million USD, Ecovative has the potential to significantly scale up production and efforts to continue to innovate with mycelium-based products. This successful funding round reflects the development of impact investing, which has seen sustainability issues become firmly entrenched in the financial markets.
Their successful growth and the demand they have experienced for their packaging products, both B2B and consumers, reflect the current demand for plastic alternatives. This increase in demand will continue to fuel their growth over the next five to ten years. Whether their textile alternatives and plant-based alternative meats will experience the same level of demand is yet to be seen.
Ultimately, Ecovative Design will continue to be at the forefront of innovation, finding more applications and industries for their mycelium products. Their visionary, innovative and sustainably-minded motivations will continue to prompt companies like the Magical Mushroom Company and BioFab to buy the rights to produce and sell their products.
Scalability and cost-effectiveness at an industrial scale may prove problematic when partnering with large firms like IKEA. Furthermore, whether consumers demand mushroom-based alternatives to products like bacon at the scale sought by Atlast is still to be seen.
However, as long as consumers, businesses, and manufacturers look for sustainable solutions, Ecovative will continue to pioneer the development of sustainable alternative materials. Ensuring continued support from investors, driving sustainable innovation, and selecting powerful partnerships are vital to the continued growth of Ecovative.
Whether trainers, bacon and house insulation will be made from mycelium-based products in 10 years is hard to say. However, Ecovative offers a refreshing, sustainable, and exciting alternative to challenge existing products.