Eben Bayer grew up on a farm in central Vermont, where he was responsible for refilling the family’s wood gasifier. As he shoveled chips into the unit, he noticed they sometimes clumped tightly together, as though glued by webs of white plastic.
Back then, Bayer didn’t know the science of mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms. Today, he’s an expert. As an undergraduate at RPI – where he dual-majored in mechanical engineering and product and design — he studied mycelium’s remarkable binding properties and found a way to apply them in producing an entirely new class of natural composite materials. When Bayer graduated in 2007, Burt Swersey — the legendary entrepreneur who taught RPI’s “Inventors Studio” and introduced its popular “How to Change the World” course — encouraged Bayer and his colleague, Gavin McIntyre, to develop the technology into a business. They called it Ecovative Design and Swersy, who died last March, became its first investor.
Ecovative today produces mycelium-based products for such major companies as Dell, Rich Brilliant Willing, and Gunlocke. At 75 employees, they’ve increased their capacity with a new 20,000 sq. foot plant in Troy, expanding on their existing 35,000 sq. foot headquarters in Green Island. And they’re seeking new opportunities in the new mycelium-based field of materials science that they invented and continue to be virtually the sole player.
Interviewed by E. Patrice Perkins at the December edition of Startup Grind Albany, Bayer discussed the challenges and satisfactions of being an entrepreneur and provided a look into the future of biological technology. Following are excerpts.
Early Interest. “I’ve always been interested in natural materials and especially the beauty of living things, such as wood. Growing up on the family farm, I spent a lot of time in and with nature, observing how living systems create solutions for the environments they thrive in.”
Myco Tech. “Mycelium is a natural polymer. When we mix it with shredded agriculture waste – such as corn stalks — it ingests the fiber and excretes a resin that binds the particles. When we dry, compress, and heat this substance, the result is a composite material that has the same essential properties as conventional materials plus the huge advantage of being fully biodegradable. You can put anything we make into a compost bin and it will decompose.”
Products. “Our first product was Mushroom® Packaging, an alternative to Styrofoam. Now we’re rapidly commercializing MycoBoard®, which is made without the toxic glues typically found in plywood, particleboard and fiberboard.”
Getting Team Buy-In. “It all starts with having a shared vision. You have to define what you’re doing in terms of your corporate values, explain to the team why it’s important, and then tell them what needs to happen to achieve success.”
What’s Next. “We see an opportunity to sharply reduce the use of urea-formaldehyde in the production of pressed-wood products like plywood, particle board, and fiberboard. We’re already supplying molded composites to specialty high-end furniture manufacturers. Now we’re moving up to the wood mill level; our plan is to install mResin® (Mycelium Resin) sites at mills around the world. We’re also developing materials for such new markets as insulation, floral foams, seed starters, and shoe soles. More generally, we’re exploring ways to apply synthetic biology in improving our resin system, the chemical composition of the biomass that binds fibers together, and the rich variety of enzymes and chemicals we can create during resin growth.”
Farmers as Entrepreneurs. “We love to hire people who grow up on farms because there are real parallels with entrepreneurship. You have limited resources. You’re constantly solving problems. You learn self-reliance. You learn the value of hard work. And you have to be multidisciplinary in your approach to problems. It’s animal husbandry one day and structural engineering the next.”
The Future. “I see exciting opportunities opening at the intersection of 3D printing and biological engineering. In coming years, I think we’ll have the ability to create entirely new classes of devices using these technologies. Biological technology will change our lives in the same way that personal computers have. We’ll start designing with organisms as we do with computers.”