Ecovative Packs It In Portobello

Rachel Nuwer | Mon Apr 2 2012

Styrofoam packaging is so 1941. Today, organic, green packaging made from mushrooms is the latest innovation to hit the market. It’s 100 percent compostable, water insoluble and flame resistant. Oh, and it’s edible.

“Synthetic materials like Styrofoam depend on finite resources that are becoming more scarce and more expensive to extract,” said Gavin McIntyre, the co-founder and chief scientist of Ecovative Design. “We’re just taking garbage and converting it into high performance material,” he said.

McIntyre and Ecovative co-founder Eben Bayer essentially use garbage to grow their packaging products. They inoculate pasteurized seed husks, plant stalks or cotton refuse with mycelium, or mushroom roots. The mushroom-laden mix is put into plastic molds shaped to fit a wine bottle or a computer, for example. The mix is covered for several days while millions of mycelium grow through the organic garbage, sealing it together into a solid block. Finally, the container is heat dried to kill the mushrooms. Changing the fungus species or the raw material allows the creators to produce different densities, flexibilities or other characteristics for the packaging.

The idea was born in the woods of Vermont, where Bayer grew up. Walking through the forest, he noticed fungal mycelium binding wood chips together as a natural adhesive. He kept that image with him until a 2007 college class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute allowed him to put his idea to the test. “I saw an immediate advantage to growing material over the synthetic platform,” said McIntyre, who was Bayer’s lab partner in the class. “We got excited, ordered a grow-it-yourself mushroom kit, and started growing them in the kitchen of our college apartments,” he said.

The product they created for their class project wasn’t as robust as the material they use today, but it was enough to raise a round of funding. With the encouragement of their professor, they applied for the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance for a grant. They were awarded $15,815, which they used to hire other students and secure materials and space to work. “Within a three-month period, they went from being students doing a project to entrepreneurs doing cooperative research with the university,” said Phil Weilerstein, the Alliance’s executive director. By the end of the year, the pair had founded Ecovative.

“They epitomize a creative an innovative team of students running with an idea,” Weilerstein added.

Now, five years later, the 20-somethings are awash in business. They’ve hired 42 employees and raised over $10 million in grants and equity, including support from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. They produce packing materials by the thousands to sell to companies like Dell Inc. and Crate and Barrel. They’re also expanding into car bumpers, insulation, marine buoys and even compostable flip-flops. “The possibilities for the material are fairly endless,” McIntyre said.

Ecovative’s success is due in part to how environmentally friendly it is. “We saw a combination of technical innovation and market opportunity that would allow the company to become commercially successful and also create larger social and environmental benefits,” said Ben Schrag, the National Science Foundation’s program director who oversees Ecovative’s Small Business Innovation Research award. “Styrofoam represents the icon of unsustainable lifestyles,” he continued. “The idea to have a sustainable replacement for Styrofoam is a powerful business opportunity.”

Ecovative holds the patents for using fungal mycelium, but they’re not the only company to seize upon this theme. Natural Composites, another NSF-funded venture, uses material derived from coconut shells to replace plastics found in automotive applications. Some companies use recycled paper pulp to make egg cartons and other lightweight paper-based products.

For others thinking of breaking into the field, Schrag advised, “Don’t overestimate how important sustainability is to customers.” The successful green companies, he pointed out, are not only sustainable but also competitive on traditional metrics like performance and cost.