As part of our new book “What’s Your Bio Strategy?” we’ve interviewed dozens of entrepreneurs, business leaders and academics working on synthetic biology. The following is an excerpt from one of those interviews. To find out when the book goes on sale subscribe to our newsletter here.
Eben Bayer, co-Founder and CEO of Ecovative, is a leader in the biomaterial industry. He is a co-inventor of MycoBond, strong, natural building composites created by growing organism that turn low-value agricultural waste products into strong, natural composites. With Ecovative, he is leading efforts to create sustainable and affordable products.
JOHN CUMBERS: What is Ecovative’s origin story?
EBEN BAYER: It started as a university project. A very influential professor asked us to work on solving really big problems. I had this insight about mycelium. We’ve used it as food for hundreds, thousands of years. Then, I started asking, What if we looked at this organism, not as a food source, but as a material.
Once you analyze mycelium through the lens of material science, you realize this is like living glue, like living plastic. The filamentous strands of mycelium are a nanobot.
We started Ecovative in 2007. The first three years were focused on research and development, creating a minimal viable product, and trying to figure out what mycelium does best. We thought we were going to launch with building insulation – which we do manufacture today. But when push came to shove, we realized that was a challenging proof of concept. So, we pivoted and created a packaging product to replace styrofoam. That change of focus allowed us to do small boutique [manufacturing] runs and acquire customers. Because of that first product, we were able to team up with Sealed Air to offer our first product across America.
In 2016, we produced more than 1 million pounds of MycoFoam to replace plastic packaging for companies like Toyota, Dell, IBM and others. Realistically, that’s a lot of product for us to manufacture, but in terms of impact, it’s only a fraction of a percent of U.S. styrofoam.
KARL SCHMIEDER: Even though you say it’s only a fraction of a percent of U.S. styrofoam, are you able to calculate the environmental benefit?
EBEN BAYER: The raw materials don’t drive the price. In fact, our raw material is quite competitive with oil-based styrene in an amorphous form. The additional cost is growing the materials, creating the molds, and working at scale with automation. We’ve taken it to a level that let’s us price at the higher end of the market, which is typically using heavier, denser foams. We compete at price parity in that market segment.
The challenge is that the bulk of the market is extremely low density, low quality foams. From a technical point of view, there is no reason why you can’t compete in that segment on price. However, our business strategy is move up the cost-curve into durable goods and higher value products.
We’ve done the carbon footprint analysis in the past and it’s tricky – it depends on what you’re doing with the product. For example, if you incinerate polystyrene, your carbon footprint is much higher than if you put it into a landfill.
In all scenarios, our products net out positively. My focus with that product is the stuff that ends up in the ocean. It’s predicted that by 2030 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. If our product ends up in the ocean, it’s fish food. That is the common good we’re going after. It’s not about carbon dioxide (CO2), it’s about toxicity reduction for the planet.
JOHN CUMBERS: What’s your long-term vision for Ecovative?
EBEN BAYER: What makes us special is we use biofabrication. We use the whole organism to create materials. Our longer term vision is the use of fungal cells to grow a whole range of materials with varying properties from low-density plastic foams that behave like styrofoam, to thermostat resins that behave like glue and are used in engineered wood to make particle board.
JOHN CUMBERS: You don’t currently use any genetically modified organisms in your products, but you’re pro-GMO. Could you explain?
EBEN BAYER: For the record, I am very much pro-GMO. The ability to control biology, especially in higher level organisms, especially like the ones we’re working with, will change the world the way the personal computer did.
We’re at an inflection point. At Ecovative, we work with native strains [of mycelium] that just work. Now, we’re in a program with DARPA to create a GMO bug that we have complete control over. That will transform what we do because as you gain control over that system, you have a programmable living plastic, a programmable polymer. To me, that is super exciting because we’re working with a native platform that competes with synthetics today to one we have optimized.
Think about it. The chemical industry has been optimizing plastic chemistry for half a century. Once we get the toolkit that allows us to program mycelium’s biology, we’ll compete with plastics in ways we are not able to today.
I know people are scared of GMOs but that’s because of the way they were introduced to society. You can use the tool for good or bad. People are sensitive about what they put in their bodies. That’s where GMOs show up – in food. The way they showed up in food wasn’t aspirational. It wasn’t we’re going to make rice with the extra amino acids you need. Instead it was more like let’s make the crops that can tolerate pesticides able to tolerate more pesticides. If the first GMOs showed up in consumer furniture, people would be less freaked out by the technology.
When I go to a conference like Green Build, there is a lot of environmental consciousness, I get a lot of friction on the GMO point. People will ask, Are there GMOs in your product?
I’ll answer, No, but I’m wish there were. You should see people who are in love with you. Their faces drop.
KARL SCHMIEDER: Could you give us more details on the DARPA project?
EBEN BAYER: Sure, we’re focused on two exciting projects. First, we’re engineering microbial communities to gain control of the fungi we use. Most folks in biotechnology grow on liquid media – we grow on solid culture. When we studied our solid culture, we learned we’re using a combination of fungi and bacteria. We started to look at how we can create an industrial microbiome of our solid culture and control the gene expression between cultures.
You can gain control of the fungi by modifying cell wall chemistry and or by metabolic engineering to improve how it grows. You can also change the branching dynamics since physically, the fungi builds microstructures that are signaling pathways that tell it how frequently to branch. That branching has an impact on how tough the material is. This moves us out of the realm of process control and into the realm of organisms characteristics.
The second thing we’re doing with DARPA is a bit crazier. We’re using living materials to create buildings. The idea is that if a soldier were injured in the field, you could add water and the building would assemble itself as a structure.
JOHN CUMBERS: What near-term impacts do you think we’ll see around biotechnology?
EBEN BAYER: I think the biggest change will be when living objects, biological functions, leave the bioreactor and become desktop devices in consumer products.
I envision a future where you have living biological products either as the structure you live in, or as items you put in your pocket. We’re close to engineering things in your home like a smoke detector using living cellular systems. In that case, the product is a living system and its functions come not from a silicone chip, but from bacteria or fungi that is alive and responding to its environment.
When we’re able to use living organisms as consumer devices, you’ll have the incredible richness of the technological complexity that has made our world so great, but without the cost to the environment. Living devices will help us replace the extractable resources, the heavy metals, the constant stream of consumer crap that ends up in landfills. We can replicate all of that technology using biology, keeping living cells that are alive in consumer objects. Then you completely eliminate the environmental costs and it would be no different than throwing an apple on the ground or composting a chicken. Chickens are way more complicated than iPhones and they provide a net benefit. They provide nutrients and synthesize another chicken.
Biomaterials like Ecovative produces are going to impact slow-moving industries like construction, architecture, interiors. We’re working with a wood furniture company that has been around for 100 years. Their bio strategy has been trees. But when we go from biomaterials to living materials, where cells have been engineered to deliver functionality, everything changes. It will blow the doors open on all industries. Everything then will be consumer product, consumer driven.