In an ever more eco-aware world, Ecovative is creating foam, fashion, face masks and food from fungi.
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'Mycelium was completely unexplored when I came across it. Just a huge greenfield opportunity' says Eben Bayer, co-founder of Ecovative and a pioneer and advocate of mycelium technologies. Back in 2007, as an undergraduate in New York, he grasped the near-limitless potential for this natural structure to change entire industries. He grew mycelium under his bed and contemplated the many possibilities of this extraordinary natural material. At the urging of a professor, he and his friend Gavin McIntyre turned down Fulbright Scholarships and founded Ecovative, a company devoted to harnessing mycelium as a new category of commercial material. Today Ecovative is achieving for mycelium what Intel did for the computer chip.
Ecovative makes packaging with mycelium. There's also a bacon product, released in 2020 and in great demand. Insulation, beauty products, clothing... even houses can be made from it. Listening to Bayer rhapsodise about mycelium is more than a pitch for Ecovative and their own business. He frames the concept as how capitalism can evolve over the next century; harnessing natural phenomena such as mycelium to create the products of the future in harmony with life on 'Spaceship Earth'.
But first: mycelium. What is it? Mycelium is the 'root structure' of a fungus (often a mushroom). It's the tangled, fuzzy sub-structure that grows under the forest floor. It's a living mesh of thin strands that spreads under a mushroom’s body in search of and consuming nutrients.
'The way we use mycelium is like a 3D printer from nature,' says Bayer, speaking from the off-grid farm he built in upstate New York. 'It starts as a flat surface and then every couple of minutes, in our environment, grows upwards. In millions and millions of points along the soil, with little “hairs” smaller than the width of a human hair and separated by microns in space, it grows in a continuous white sheet, extruding up out of the bed.'
The growth of mycelium can be manipulated and harnessed. Under the right conditions, mycelium can grow into almost any shape and texture. 'Based on the fungal strain and how you grow the sheet, the fibres will take on different geometric patterns,' explains Bayer. 'They also produce compounds, flavours, colours, medicines, and other things.'
From lab to market
Ecovative today is in aggressive expansion mode, having developed and recently opened a new state-of-the-art mycelium foundry to allow them to scale-up their production. It's here that the scientific research takes place, running hundreds of experimental recipes in parallel, growing mycelium strains on different nutrients and under different conditions. The research allows Ecovative to identify the optimum variants which have both the right physical properties, and the ability to grow fast enough to meet market demand.
'Typically, mushroom growers use the same types of farms developed in the fifties and sixties, but at Ecovative we grow in one or two weeks instead of six, and we use far fewer input materials. The fundamental thing we've changed is the strain of mycelium [we use]. Around 90-95% of all mushroom biomass grown worldwide is the same Agaricus mushroom, broadly speaking. Traditional mushroom farms use a mixture of manure and horse straw as the input material. They use low-cost input materials; the trade-off then is a longer process to get the desired mushroom output. We use different strains of fungus for different applications. For our food application we use a fungus strain that eats wood instead of straw. If you break the wood down in advance, which we do in a continuous sterilisation process, the fungus produces more biomass in less time.'
Packaging was one of the earliest products developed by Ecovative. In the US alone, more than a quarter of landfill is styrofoam, from coffee cups to surf boards. Styrofoam waste lasts hundreds of years 'basically fouling up Earth's respiratory and circulatory systems'. Bayer and McIntyre saw mycelium as the perfect replacement.
Under controlled conditions, the pair could weave the mycelium into like-for-like packaging products to eliminate styrofoam. The biodegradable nature of mycelium makes it ideal – just throw the used packaging on a compost pile, and it dissolves into earth-friendly organic matter in weeks. And the production line is eco-friendly; mycelium grows by feeding on food sources, and by picking the right fungal strain, local by-products can be utilised to feed mycelium growth to produce packaging. 'We've created formulations [of mycelium strains] for all around the world using regional by-products. If you're in China, you might use a rice husk or a cotton seed hull. If you're in northern Europe or North America, you can use things like buckwheat husks or oat hulls.'
Ecovative's Mushroom Packaging brand is available in a dazzling array of sizes and uses. A wine bottle shipper protects the contents during delivery, and heart-shaped gift boxes are ideal for Valentine's Day or other special occasions. For orders greater than 10,000 units Mushroom Packaging will create bespoke designs.
Unsurprisingly given current consumer interest, one of the most eye-catching Ecovative divisions is food. An Ecovative spin-off called MyForest Foods produces gourmet mycelium-based products, with the first product, MyBacon, launched in 2020. MyBacon has sold out every production run since.
'Fundamentally, people want to eat bacon,' says Bayer. 'And they want a product that looks like bacon, tastes like bacon, and cooks like bacon. They don't want to eat anything weird. Most of the plant-based alternatives have really long ingredient labels with something like 30 ingredients, so you have no idea what you're consuming. And they don't taste that good.'
MyForest Foods' bacon is clearly the real deal, judging by sales and reviews. 'The mycelial strain we use is very meat-like. Its flesh is more closely related to a pig than any plant. That gives it the bacon experience. And then we had a great combination of natural flavours and coconut fat, because there's no fat in mushrooms, to provide a fry-in-a-pan bacon experience. Just six ingredients, and a clean value proposition for people who know what they are eating, and eat it because they like it.' The expectation is for MyBacon to be in 140 stores in the US later this year. 'We sell at ten times the velocity of competing products,' says Bayer.
Biodiversity – challenge and opportunity
The remark about the MyBacon mycelium strain being closer to a pig than a plant requires a moment of explanation. Fungi are a distinct kingdom of life within the eukaryotic domain, alongside the Plantae, Animalia, Protozoa and Chromista kingdoms. The world of fungi is astonishingly varied, there are estimated to be 2.2 to 3.8 million species. There are bioluminescent fungi, and more than 200 species are known to be hallucinogenic. The largest organism on earth is a fungus. The giant Armillaria ostoyae occupies 2,385 acres of soil in Oregon's Blue Mountains, nicknamed the 'humongous fungus', weighing an estimated 35,000 tons, and said to be up to 8,650 years old. As one expert put it, 'Fungi is a whole other kingdom, equal if not greater in diversity than both the plants and animals.' So it’s not surprising to find some fungi are more closely genetically related to a species in the animal kingdom than any plant.
The biodiversity of the fungus kingdom is both a challenge and opportunity for Ecovative. 'We have about 550 strains in our library that we have collected from nature,' reveals Bayer. 'These are not all unique species of mushrooms. Some might be the same species and different variants of it. These span the gamut from nutraceutical properties through to delicious textures, or flavours you might find in our food. Mostly they are there for their physical properties. We look at the tensile strength, the compressive and flexural strength of the tissue when it's in the form of a mushroom, and we use that to predict how we might use the same cells to create new materials.'
The chief librarian is Sam Donato, Ecovative’s Associate Research Scientist who runs the team looking after this cornucopia. 'It's an art,' says Bayer. 'You keep them alive in this sort of cryostorage and reanimation. This has a big impact on the properties you get downstream. A lot of our technology is how we control the growth of the organism both at the moment we grow it, but also over its lifecycle.'
With millions of species to be researched, it's clear Ecovative has only scratched the surface of what is possible. Then there's the potential to tweak existing mushroom DNA with CRISPR gene-editing. 'We've invested about $15m in developing a CRISPR-Cas-9 system, with funding by the US government agency DARPA. We can program the DNA to express certain things, such as response to a stimuli such as light. We'd basically have a 3D printer that is completely sustainable. We are just getting started.'
Bayer and McIntyre could be forgiven for concentrating solely on the markets they've already chosen to enter, but they are expanding into numerous industries. In addition to packaging and food, Ecovative operates in the beauty, foam and leather industries.
The Ecovative foam product is a home-compostable alternative to the plastic foam products used in makeup applicators and sheet masks. The leather product is a pure mycelium material called Forager, grown in only nine days. It's naturally high tensile, tear resistant, durable, and can be grown in hides 60 metres by four metres. A Forager leather jacket can look and feel akin to a cow or crocodile hide, with 100% vegan credentials.
An industry with huge potential both for Ecovative and more broadly from an environmental perspective, is housing. Mycelium can make insulation, bricks, acoustic panels and floor tiles. Copenhagen-based architect Phil Ayres and colleagues wrote a paper on housing built from mycelium impregnated with nanoparticles able to 'self-grow, build, and repair themselves subject to substrate supplied [and] use natural adaptation to the environment.' A fair estimate is that 90% of a house could be made from mycelium – all apart from the lights, wiring and other metal fixtures.
'The primary advantages of mycelium as a building material is it's a structural, insulating, semi-lightweight composite,' explains Bayer. 'This means it can be used in places where you might use either a dense wood fibre board, so you have to use a lot more material to get the same properties, or more often a plastic board of extruded polystyrene or expanded polystyrene. Mycelium offers the same structural performance, is very fire resistant, and can self-extinguish.'
The biodegradable nature of mycelium is no obstacle. 'Properly protected wood timber houses in Europe have lasted six or seven hundred years with no problem. There is nothing inherently unstable about a biomaterial. If you leave timber beams outside they'll rot. The same is true for mycelium biopolymer. It will last indefinitely until you choose to take it out.'
The range of opportunities is too large for Ecovative to pursue alone. 'Mycelium biology will be foundational for the world, just like silicon chips,' says Bayer. 'We've just scratched the surface.'
So the company licences its technology and products to third parties. 'There's a company called Loop in the Netherlands making compostable coffins, because people don't want to be put in a chemical-filled box underground. They love the idea of returning to the earth. We just try to support these new applications that are outside our focus area. We provide the picks and shovels, if you will, and then we look and see others create exciting business around us.
Defending this technology is vital. Bayer and McIntyre are the primary inventors on at least ten patents published in 31 countries and were finalists of the EPO European Inventor Award in 2019. Mewburn Ellis works closely with Ecovative, both directly and through the US counsel to manage their European IP portfolio and harness these assets.
A key question is how to patent natural processes without overstepping a moral mark. 'It's a wonderful question,' admits Bayer. 'I wrote my senior thesis on the intersection of molecular nanotechnology, patenting nature, and things that were happening in DNA, such as when parts of the Jewish population’s genetic code were being patented for breast cancer markers. So I was very aware of the risks.'
And the right balance? 'There's the question of how you draw the line between something being novel and existing in nature. What amount of human involvement is needed for a natural process to become novel? That question applies to patenting DNA sequences through to molecular structures [such as mycelium].'
Then there's the ethical issue. 'The other side of the question is being part of a biological ecosystem and taking something like a mushroom from the woods and filing patents around a process. Are you hijacking a natural technology in a way that's unfair to the other people who live on “Spaceship Earth”? I'm not sure there's a fundamentally right answer to that question. But it's a tension we all have to be aware of.'
In the end, Bayer believes the immense good he's able to do outweighs most of the objections to patenting technology built on natural processes. 'Fundamentally, my point is to take advantage of the capitalist system in which we live to use technology, and scale, that will take an ecological load off the planet and do good. We have an altruistic motive.'
It's still early days. Revenue at Ecovative is growing from millions to tens of millions of dollars. 'The next step or two is to grow to hundreds of millions.'
Like other revolutionary entrepreneurs, his mission is more than any balance sheet can capture. 'I spend the vast amount of my time on people,' concludes Bayer. 'I make sure their passions and strengths are focused on the biggest problems, to the biggest degree possible. That's when we have the most success – and the most happiness as individuals – as a team.'
His team have taken just a few steps into the fungi realm. There is a whole kingdom to explore.
Harnessing mycelium technology
Eleanor Maciver, Partner and Patent Attorney, Mewburn Ellis comments:
Ecovative’s ground breaking mycelium technology has the potential to impact positively in so many key areas. It is great to hear about Ecovative’s progress scaling up and utilising this potential in packaging, food, beauty, foam and leather. It is also great to see Ecovative supporting other companies to harness mycelium technology in different areas. This highlights Ecovative’s deep understanding of how important mycelium technology can be for the planet and their desire for mycelium technology to be adopted widely and quickly to harness its full potential.
I’ve been lucky to work with Ecovative during some of this journey and their passion not just for mycelium technology but to create a more sustainable future is hard to miss. At Mewburn Ellis, we have experts who can help innovators to protect and commercialise sustainable technologies in any field (such as those discussed in our Green IP Report and our blog) and we are passionate about doing so.
Written by Charles Orton-Jones
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