Written by: Sue Van Hook
As a young boy, Eben Bayer had the job of shoveling wood chips into the sap evaporator on the family sugar farm in Vermont. Years later as a senior engineering student at RPI, Eben was enrolled in Burt Swersey’s Inventor’s Studio course along with Gavin McIntyre. Swersey challenged the class to invent something that would better the world. Eben had an idea. What if the tenacious white stringy fungus tissue holding wood chips together could be adapted to act as a natural resin? He engaged Gavin in the project to discover the answer to his question. The two ordered oyster mushroom spores from the internet and added them to flour, perlite and water in a bowl, then spread the mixture onto a cookie sheet and let it incubate in the dorm room. The result was a 1” sheet of material that when dried was stiff and light. They decided they had grown an insulation board after conducting materials tests at the ASTM lab in Maryland. The R value was almost 3 per inch and the material had a Class A fire rating meaning it would not burn.
Gavin and Eben tried growing oyster mushroom mycelium on several different waste substrates with varying degrees of success during that semester. They were intrigued by the insulation board, but also had good paying engineer jobs to begin upon graduation. It was Swersey who kept calling to insist their mushroom composite material was the most disruptive technology he had witnessed in his years of entrepreneurship and teaching. He persisted, securing the two space in the college’s business incubator program and kicking in some start up money. Within weeks of graduation, Sue Van Hook read about the gentlemen from RPI growing mushroom insulation. A mycologist teaching biology labs at nearby Skidmore College, she offered her services as a consultant and trained these young engineers in mushroom cultivation and sterile techniques.
Eben quit his job in the defense industry on the first day and Gavin soon left his job to join forces. The two named the insulation board, “Greensulate” and donned the company name, Ecovative Design. Its original mission was to replace toxic plastic foams in our homes. But the year was 2007 and a recession hit the following year. Entry into the well established competitive building market was not advised by the company’s board members as an initial platform. So the two decided they were good at growing molded shapes. It was an easy pivot to go after other toxic plastic foam, namely expanded polystyrene protective packaging.
There were a handful of pilot projects with companies to protect their products during shipment, but early on it became clear no one believed this new tech could be scaled. So the two hired more engineers and student interns to build manufacturing equipment. Once the line was in place and cranking out packaging parts, the first real sale was to Steelcase who ordered corner blocking and flatstock bracing to protect their furniture in transit. Steelcase is the largest office furniture manufacturer in the United States. This sale was significant.
The first federal EPA grant in 2009 that provided additional credibility for the material platform and the company. Van Hook acted as PI on that grant to optimize 5 species on 4 substrates for the protective packaging platform. Subsequent grants were easier to obtain.
There has never been too great a challenge for Eben or Gavin to suspend belief in their Mushroom® Materials. The product really sells itself as a perfectly natural solution for many applications to pervasive plastic foams. Sure, it requires stamina and persistence. Bringing in enough dollars to support a team of 65 people within a few years has been thanks to McIntyre’s endless pursuit and success in winning federal and state SBIR grant awards and Bayer’s charismatic pitch. He can make anyone a believer.
It is not hard to believe in something this good. Ecovative’s Mushroom products are Cradle to Cradle Gold Certified in all 6 categories. There is no waste stream that results from the ambient growth of fungal mycelium to shape agricultural wastes into packaging parts or to act as a natural resin to replace toxic urea formaldehydes in particle boards. The vision is to operate regional manufacturing plants making toxin free furniture, wall boards, flooring, insulation, ceiling tiles for healthy homes, keeping our carbon footprint to a minimum. The fungi play a huge role in helping to save the planet and change human consciousness. Ecovative is at the forefront of fungi in all our futures.
Beakerhead for a Better World is a collaboration between Beakerhead and Trico Charitable Foundation