In 1907, electric power was spreading in the United States. Leo Baekerland, a chemist, was looking for a synthetic substitute for shellac. He invented Bakelite, the first fully synthetic plastic. It was a good insulator, durable and heat resistant. Its invention marked the start of the plastic revolution. For the first time, manufacturers were not constrained by the limitations of nature. They could create new plastic materials to replace wood, metal, stone and other natural materials.
Today, plastic is critical to modern life. Yet, despite its valuable uses, its production needs to slow down because plastic waste is creating severe environmental, economic, social and health consequences. Unlike natural materials, plastic does not decompose. When it ends up in the ocean, it’s broken down into tiny pieces that make it difficult to clean up. Marine animals can get caught in plastic or mistake it for food. It can also leach toxic chemicals into the ocean.
Mycelium, a substitute for plastic
For nearly 16 years, Ecovative has been working to displace plastic by offering industries biodegradable materials grown from mycelium. Mycelium is the vegetative, root-like structure of fungi and the magic ingredient in every Ecovative product. Since it was founded in 2007 by Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer, the company has raised about $91M.
Ecovative’s most mature and globally distributed material is packaging. Made up of mycelium and agricultural by-products sourced from local farms, Mushroom® packaging is a substitute for styrofoam. Major companies like IKEA and Dell have partnered with Ecovative to grow the packaging they use to ship furniture, computer screens and many other products.
Mycelium is moving into more markets
Mycelium is versatile. The entrepreneurs behind the company’s success are moving into new markets and introducing sustainable, alternative products like MyBacon and leather.
MyBacon, the first wholecut mycelium-based bacon, is flying off the shelves. Named as one of Time magazine’s Best Inventions of 2022, Gavin says not only is it delicious, but it also delivers the same type of nutrition as pork bacon. Meanwhile, Ecovative’s partnership with apparel and fashion companies like ECCO, a premium leather producer, aims to produce beautiful, durable, synthetic-free and totally vegan materials for the fashion industry.
Gavin says Ecovative has the infrastructure and processes in place to make a true impact in the market. “We are at this next leap in scale where we’re operating fully scaled vertical farms that are now delivering consistently high volumes of our aerial mycelium products for food. And as we look into the future, we look to leverage the same underlying platform for other product categories, be it textiles or foams.”
There’s a lot to be excited about in the field of mycelium. Researchers have barely scratched the surface, yet it seems the closer we get to realizing the full potential of mycelium, the closer we get to building a more stable future.
Thank you to Rodalyn Guinto for additional research and reporting on this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta and some of the companies I write about, including Ecovative, are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference. For more content, you can subscribe to my weekly newsletter and follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.