In the village of Green Island, outside of Troy, a biological research and development company has been quietly growing a technological revolution using fungi. Since 2007, Ecovative Design has focused on manipulating mycelium, the complex root structure of fungus, to facilitate the creation of everything from fully biodegradable, sustainable packaging to interior design products and, most recently, non-meat alternatives. The result? Products that simply compost away and food sources that are environmentally sustainable.
"Ecovative is dedicated to being a leader in remediating plastics pollution and animal agriculture," says Lacey Davidson, Brand Manager for Ecovative Design, which includes a small team of engineers, designers, and scientists working in the 35,000-square-foot mycelium foundry in the Capital Region.
"Scientists are artists, too," says Grace Knight, a product fabricator and industrial designer for Ecovative Design. "We're a bunch of free-thinkers that are attacking a problem that no one has done before and that excites us. We saw that no one is doing the mycelium scaffold, so we thought we'd take a crack at it. We've only scratched the surface."
Because Ecovative Design's biofabrication processes are done in a controlled environment, the mycelium's physical properties can be refined to exact specifications to affect attributes like texture and density. The resulting materials are fully biodegradable, capable of decomposing completely within 45 days.
The company's MycoComposite technology uses mycelium as a biological binder with agricultural waste from hemp production. A multi-day process of growing, hydrating, and drying yields custom, bio-based molds that can be used as an environmentally sound alternative to Styrofoam and plastics in everything from packaging to home goods. Ecovative Design's MycoFlex technology produces a pure mycelium foam that has a wide range of uses including beauty products like face masks and cosmetic sponges, performance foam for footwear, and insulation for clothing. The company's latest technological application, Atlast Food Co., uses the cellular scaffolding of mycelium to create plant- and cell-based alternatives to whole cuts of meat that imitate the taste and texture of animal products.
Cofounded by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduates Eben Bayer, CEO, and Gavin McIntyre, Business Development Director, Ecovative Design is centered on building business-to-business (B2B) partnerships that provide ecological solutions to the marketplace and is actively focused on developing a supply chain to establish more sustainable manufacturers worldwide. The bio-based technologies they develop are licensed to outside companies that produce the materials themselves to create their own end products.
Interest in Ecovative Design's technologies has taken root. Licensees are in California, the Netherlands (Krown Design), the United Kingdom and New Zealand, including several for sustainable packaging materials and interior decor items made from MycoComposite. Among the companies using Ecovative Design technology for custom compostable packaging are Keap Candles, Seed Probiotics, and Rich Brilliant Willing Lighting. Ecovative Design also has a partnership with fiber and fabric wholesaler Bolt Threads, which is collaborating with Stella McCartney to make handbags out of mycelium leather and has targeted continued development on footwear and technical wear made with the compostable materials.
"[By] partnering with enterprising designers and thought leaders in various industries, Ecovative has been able to accelerate the implementation of sustainable solutions in art and architectural installations, housewares, and, soon, cruelty-free meat-like structure," Davidson says. Through Ecovative Design's website, the company offers grow-it-yourself kits to artists and designers looking to use mycelium for innovative applications along with instructional videos.
"Mycelium provides a unique biological opportunity to solve major problems on Earth," says Sam Donato, a research associate at Ecovative Design. "By building a relationship with and understanding of this organism, we can design a more sustainable future—a future comprised of sustainable materials—and the ability to feed an ever-growing population of humans."