Eben Bayer and Gavin Mclntyre, co-founders at Ecovative. Image by Ecovative.
10 MAY 2023
Can you tell us about Ecovative, how it started and what the organisation does?
At Ecovative, we create high performance earth compatible products using mycelium. Mycelium is the vegetative or root-like structure of mushrooms, that through the technology we’ve developed in our foundry, we can guide the growth to create differentiated materials with a range of product qualities for a breadth of industries, from fashion, food, to protective packaging.
We got our start in 2007 with the observation that plastic pollution surrounds us in our everyday lives. We first introduced mushroom packaging in 2009 to displace the non durable plastics that are common in protecting our goods in transit. Since that time, we’ve developed technologies and product market fit for pure mycelium, for everything from meat substitutes to leather-like hides and technical foams for fashion and automotive applications. Today, Ecovative is partnering with brands and industry leaders to develop these technologies along with the products that use them and forging the supply chains that enable them.
What problem is your innovation solving? Why is this innovation needed?
Our mycelium technology reconnects industries with natural cycles and enables true circularity. According to Wired, the fashion industry consumes over 340 million barrels of petroleum every year to produce foams and fibres like polyester, nylon, and acrylics. Today, fashion brands are producing almost twice the volume, as they did at the turn of the millennium, and most of that growth is fuelled from plastic based fibres and materials.
Foams are common to garments, car seats, and all kinds of things that are almost universally made of plastics. Most “pleather” is entirely made of plastic and plant-based plastics aren’t much better, as these are chemically identical materials, which means that they persist in the environment at the end of their useful life-cycle.
The materials we provide to our brand partners are completely plastic-free and compostable at the end of their useful life-cycle. They can be treated any number of ways, and we are encouraging the development of non-toxic, non-petroleum based tanning and finishing methods.
Can you explain what mycelium is and where it comes from?
Mycelium is the vegetative or root-like structure of mushrooms. Ecovative focuses on mycelium because, in nature, it’s the recycling system. It’s responsible for taking the leaf litter and coarse woody debris that’s produced in a forest and transforming it into the mushroom you might see growing along the forest floor or out of the side of a tree.
Today, we source agricultural and industrial waste streams from spent cotton fibres to seed halls and seed husks, and even sawdust from timber and sawmills. The mycelium derives all of its energy for growth from these biomass sources and transforms them into the leather like hides or elastomeric foams that we presently offer to the fashion industry.
Mycelium. Image by Ecovative.
Tell us about Forager™ and Mushroom® Packaging — what do these replace or offer alternatives to? Why are material innovations important in driving the industry towards circularity?
At Ecovative, Forager™ division is producing high performance foams and textiles that focus on displacing the plastics that are common within fashion, apparel, automotive and aerospace. Today, these industries are highly dependent upon the fossil fuel derived plastics to create textiles and foams that are used in a wide range of applications. At Forager™, we’re able to grow natural materials that are compatible with the planet at the end of their useful life cycle, meaning that they naturally are compostable and can sustain those same cycles to start the process anew.
Our Mushroom® Packaging product is focused on displacing the plastics that are commonly used to protect goods in transit. In the United States, over 30 million packages are shipped every day, most of which use plastics in some form or fashion. Mushroom® Packaging is literally grown in just six days and, at the end of its useful life-cycle once you unbox your package, these materials can be home composted.
What have been the biggest challenges so far in Ecovative’s journey to scale?
Over the last decade and a half, Ecovative has introduced and scaled several different types of mycelium technology, and we’ve learned a lot along the way. One of the first critical lessons that we’ve learned is to look to analogous industries, and we’ve garnered a lot of wisdom from the mushroom cultivation industry. Our very first facilities were entirely invented and constructed in-house, which of course led to a number of operational challenges and downtime that wasn’t originally planned for. In order to ameliorate this going forward, we looked to learn from as many industries as possible with experience in vertical farming. So we’ve been able to tap into the depth of experience and wisdom coming from the Dutch mushroom farming infrastructure industry. That is what has enabled us to quickly and readily scale our AirMycelium platform for food and now for applications in fashion.
Similarly, we’ve had to create a number of our own research tools, for high throughput technology development, in the form of, what we call, our Mycelium Foundry. We grow technologies and products using solid state fermentation. There’s lots of technology out there for liquid fermentation, think of it like brewing beer from various scales, from just half a litre all the way up to thousands of litres. One of our primary lesson learned is that we need to have enabled high throughput research. And today within our Mycelium Foundries, our scientists and engineers have created a unique suite of tools that enable us to develop solid state fermentation technology that immediately can go into our scaled infrastructure and vertical farms.
Today, we source guidance from our brand partners telling us what type of attributes are important to their end-products. This feedback goes to our scientists who can quickly iterate within our Mycelium Foundry, tweaking different types of recipes, be it from the environment or the raw materials that we use, to quickly create a next generation product that we can put back into the hands of our brand partners to garner new feedback as we continue on our scaling journey.
What have been the biggest successes so far?
Ecovative’s biggest successes have been our ability to identify product market fit for our mycelium technologies. First, we always focus on planetary problems, so those are the industries that are most reliant on plastics and create the most plastic pollution. This ranges, of course, from the fashion industry to the foams that are used in protective packaging today. We focus on ensuring that our technologies are both economically viable, provide the right performance, and are scalable.
Ecovative is the first mycelium technology company in the world. It has literally created a new category of materials, and those materials only have the planetary impact that we’re looking for if you can bring them to ultimate scale. And one of our biggest successes over the last 15 years has been our ability to adapt technology from other industries and bring our mycelium technologies to the ultimate scale, commissioning in the last 18 months over 11,000 square metres of new industrial vertical farming infrastructure, which represents the largest mycelium farm in the world.
ECCO Leather x Ecovative. Image by Ecovative.
What is one lesson you’d pass on to other entrepreneurs working in this industry?
As an entrepreneur and as someone who started in the field, directly out of college, my first piece of advice is always to ask for help. Never assume that you have all the information at hand, and if you reach out to an area expert, there’s a high likelihood that they’ll see the value in what you’re doing and offer to directly support.
What are the biggest hurdles the industry has yet to overcome?
Within the fashion and apparel industry, all of those products are really a hybrid of multiple different materials that come together to provide performance, comfort, and style. In order for the industry to make a meaningful change towards sustainability, that means that they have to integrate a wide range of new technologies and solutions through a very diverse and deliberate supply and value chain. That means that there needs to be new product adoption and as well as integration through all of these different brand partners in order to have a meaningful impact in displacing plastics and other fossil fuel derived materials. One of the most pressing challenges within the fashion industry today is really identifying what it means to be truly sustainable. And what we’ve seen in terms of the introduction of new materials is that sustainability doesn’t mean that it’s truly circular and can passively return to our planet. And so focusing on circularity, displacing non-renewable resources like plastics and other fossil fuel derived materials with natural materials that can come from natural cycles and return to replenish those cycles, is critically important if we’re going to not only sustain, but grow our industry.
What role does collaboration play in bringing innovations to scale?
For Ecovative, collaboration is not only influential, but absolutely paramount in bringing our innovations and material technologies to scale. We rely on our brand partners to tell us what we need to achieve in order to have a product that’s fit for fashion and to drop into existing manufacturing processes and infrastructure. So today, we provide materials to our brand partners, garner quick feedback as what material properties need to be improved so that the scientists and experts within our Mycelium Foundry can rapidly create the next generation of mycelium materials, that can fit into our scaled infrastructure and come to the ultimate reality of being in an a fashion or apparel product.
The Fashion for Good team was absolutely critical in connecting us with industry leaders like PVH, BESTSELLER, Vivobarefoot and Pangaia, in terms of identifying real needs that the industry has and pairing that with technological solutions like Ecovative that can solve those needs.
What changes would you like to see in the industry in the coming years? What opportunities are you excited about?
One of the amazing components of working with the Fashion for Good Team is the ability to bring multiple brand partners together to collectively focus and solve one major problem. The industry has been principally very insular, focusing on their own brand, own needs, and being very inclusive as to the products that they introduce. Through our Fashion for Good cooperative and working with the amazing brands that we have relationships with today, we’re able to bring together a network of partners to focus product and technology development on key needs and issues that we know, once we’ve solved, can be introduced into the broader market.
Keap Candles Mushroom® Packaging. Image by Keap.
When looking at the impact of your technology, which area are you most focused on addressing and can you speak a bit more about how your technology is net positive for the planet?
At Ecovative our material solutions are first and foremost focused on displacing the ubiquitous plaque stick waste that’s derived from everything from fashion to packaging. And so this begins by focusing on creating a local supply chain of agricultural waste streams, where we can valorise or take waste from industries like agriculture, forestry, and even the industry of fashion itself, and transform those into a next generation product using mycelium. This allows us to produce new materials with a fraction of the energy and greenhouse gas emissions of the incumbent plastic materials, either foams or textiles. This also leads to a substantial reduction in the total amount of land use and water that’s consumed in other analogous industries like animal agriculture.
We focus on first creating local supply chains where our raw materials come from within just 200 kilometres of our vertical farms. We then grow inherent drop in replacements for conventional plastics that are naturally grown and can passively returned to the earth. These materials today are grown with a fraction of the embodied energy and emit nearly an eighth of the greenhouse gas emissions in comparison to the conventional plastics that are used within packaging and elastomeric foams in fashion.
What’s next for Ecovative?
Looking out over the next five years, Ecovative is focused on expanding globally. Today our vertical farms are growing our mycelium based products in upstate New York, and we’ve recently acquired a facility in Europe in order to take this product internationally. Our mushroom packaging products have been sold worldwide for a number of years, and we’ve been able to licence and transfer this technology to independent operators on three continents in over ten locations. Next, we intend to do the same for our AirMycelium platform, enabling conventional mushroom cultivators to grow these next generation of materials locally, reducing the embodied energy associated with transportation while taking advantage of local biomass resources to provide new value to local farmers.
How has Fashion for Good played a role in your journey so far?
Since 2018, Fashion for Good has been incredibly influential and supportive through Ecovative’s journey and exploration of the fashion and apparel industry. Fashion for Good has offered us both resources on the market and brought brand partners to the table in order to assess our materials as well as to share what their needs are and what they’re looking to solve to bring next generation products to market.
Today we’ve been able to demonstrate that we can grow and take pure mycelium, transform those materials in existing infrastructure into beautiful high performing articles from handbags to footwear.
Lastly, what advice would you give to consumers trying to be more sustainable?
When consumers are looking to make an impact on the industry, the best thing they can do is hold brands accountable by voting with your dollars, you can drive the selection and adoption of new materials just by telling those industry leaders what’s important to you, what it means to truly be sustainable and to offer planet friendly products.