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The future of fungi--mushroom innovation at Ecovative Design.

This is a mushroom. Coprinus comatus (shaggy ink cap or shaggy mane), to be precise.

This is kimchi fried rice with shiitake mushrooms. (It's a Korean dish. And it's amazing. Look it up.)

And this is Myco Board made from mushroom mycelium.

Wait. What? Let's back up....

It was late July. Conservationist for Kids Editor Jeremy Taylor and I had just arrived at Ecovative Design in Green Island, N.Y., headquarters of all things "Mushroom Material." We were on a mission to see what all this mushroom mayhem was about.

Eco- (as in "ecology") -vative (from "innovative") Design doesn't believe in drilling, pumping or refining for its materials; instead, it believes in growing them. Yes, growing. And that's exactly what happens at Ecovative's facilities in Green Island and Troy, N.Y.

Ecovative began in 2006 as an idea; a solution to the question "What is a pressing problem in the world and how would you solve it?" That's when cofounders Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre's no-big-deal college assignment turned into a very big deal. Originally, they focused on how fungi could replace foam insulation. Over the next few years, they began more seriously experimenting with the concept.

With more research and development, Ecovative shifted its focus to mushroom packaging materials--products which are the crux of the company to this day. Ecovative's mushroom packaging replaces existing plastic foam packaging with its innovative process. Ecovative works directly with companies to design and grow custom-fit packaging materials for the company's products. This packaging can be tailor-made to fit anything from speakers to computers and anything in between.

Ecovative has a team of 65 engineers, scientists, developers, researchers, growers and the designers who work to intricately create a company's product. Templates are then necessary so growers know the stipulations for what they're creating. It may seem like a small team, but Jeremy and I quickly realized it is a dedicated team focused on passionately creating sustainable materials.

Companies like Dell, Crate and Barrel, Merck Forestry and others all look to Ecovative for this cost-competitive and safer alternative to foam packaging. Best of all, we learned (our eyes wide), after a product finally reaches a consumer, the mushroom packaging can be placed in a compost pile to naturally break down. No kidding!

A relatively new development, with which Jeremy and I were particularly impressed, is Myco Board, a super-strong material made in the same way as mushroom packaging, except that the finished product resembles something like wood. ("It even feels like wood!" Jeremy and I had both remarked, in awe.) Myco Board can be shaped and molded to whatever a company would like, such as table tops, chair backs, etc.

Gunlocke and Enjoy Handplanes are two companies that have seized upon this environmentally friendly alternative to processed wood products. Wood products can often contain harmful chemicals like formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Ecovative's Myco Board doesn't contain these chemicals. Just like mushroom packaging, too, Myco Board stays strong and lasts long until it's placed outside, in the dirt, to naturally decompose.

So you're probably wondering at this point, "All this is made from the shaggy ink caps and shiitake mushrooms you mentioned earlier?" Nope. (We were wrong too; don't feel bad.)

Mushroom Materials are made from agricultural waste such as com stalks, seed husks (or whatever is readily available in the local area), and mushroom mycelium which can best be described as mushroom "roots." Much to our dismay, Ecovative's "myceliation team" kept the specific mushrooms it uses hush-hush, but we did learn that 510 different strains are used for various materials!

The crop waste acts as food for the mycelium. In the highly advanced Green Island and Troy factories, the ingredients go through several steps where it is mixed, packaged tightly in mini "greenhouses" to grow, molded to a company's specifications, and then dried to stop the growing process. What's left is Mushroom Material.

What's great about the process is that Ecovative has built relationships with many local farmers, and works directly with them to obtain their agricultural waste. Unlike the ingredients for traditional packaging, this biomass is readily available; Ecovative only needs to ask a farmer to obtain it.

What's in store for the future of Ecovative Design? For now, said Gavin McIntyre, they're concentrating on exploring all uses of the Myco Board technology. If touring the Green Island plant showed Jeremy and me anything, though, it's that Ecovative will be coming up with new and exciting environmentally friendly concepts for its Mushroom Materials before we know it.

Grow Your Own!

Ecovative wants to see what new and interesting products you can make from its Mushroom Material. That's why it offers a "GIY" (Grow It Yourself) kit, where you can grow your own Mushroom Material, right in your own kitchen. The idea began when Ecovative received too many requests for things they didn't make; the market just wasn't big enough. So, Ecovative encouraged people to grow these products themselves. With the individual GIY kits, people have developed beehives, models; and even used them for taxidermy. What will you make?

Visit http://giy.ecovativedesign.com to learn more.

Good for the Environment; Good for the Economy

In 2012, Ecovative Design was a recipient of a NYS Environmental Excellence Award for serving as a model of innovation and sustainability with its Mushroom Material packaging. These annual DEC awards are given to businesses, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, facilities, government agencies and individuals in recognition of outstanding commitment to environmental sustainability, social responsibility and economic viability.

The environmental benefits of Ecovative's products include replacing 196,000 cubic feet of plastic foam packaging parts and diverting that material from landfills post use, saving 77 thousand gallons of petroleum annually and diverting 686 tons of agricultural waste from landfills or incinerators on an annual basis. Ecovative demonstrates that innovative, bio-based products grown in the USA can be high-performance, ecologically sensible and have a place in the global market.

Jenna Kerwin is the staff writer for Conservationist.

Author's Note: Visit www.ecovativedesign.com to learn more about Ecovative Design and Mushroom Materials.
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Author:Kerwin, Jenna
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Date:Oct 1, 2015
Words:1012
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