Eben has already spent a long day with a lot of talking, when we meet him at the Hello Tomorrow conference in Paris. He is one of the key speakers on the main stage in the auditorium, and we’re lucky that he has a few minutes to spare for an interview before we have to leave for the airport. Eben’s company Ecovative Design was founded ten years ago, however he still radiates the same enthusiasm as the hundreds of new entrepreneurs at the conference, who all are aiming to achieve, what Eben has done: transforming their startup into a successful company.
WUNDERDING: Your name Ecovative, comes from eco, as in ecology, plus innovative. What are the main ingredients for your ecological and innovative product?
Eben Bayer: What we do is is special in biology. We make products out of the living organism itself. Most people grow something like yeast in water with sugar – you get the beer and you throw the yeast away. Well, we grow a filamentous yeast and the structure that the yeast forms is the final product. So it’s a little bit like making bread: we take hemp or crop waste, we grind it, up so you have the particles, you put the mycelium cells into that mix and over the course of four days, the cells grow through and around the wood chips or the hemp and it literally grows a glue and binds it all together. And that it is how we created our bio-composites, the body of the organism becomes the product.
WUNDERDING: How did Ecovative start?
Eben Bayer: I started Ecovative as a college student in a class called inventor studios of which the goal was to create inventions which could have a positive impact on the world. I basically started Ecovative in a basement with my co-founder Gavin McIntyre and we’ve grown to have two facilities in upstate New York and patents in 30 different countries where we practice our process. We develop products for packaging, for building construction, for home interiors and pretty soon we’re beginning to transfer these technologies and products to other regions, from Israel to the Netherlands and elsewhere.
WUNDERDING: What is the main advantage compared to plastic materials?
Eben Bayer: The biggest advantage I see in grown materials in general, and specifically mycelium bio-composites, is that they are toxic free and that they are healthy enough, so you can eat them. They’re Cradle to cradle gold certified and at the end of their useful life they are compostable at home. This is great for packaging, because when you get packaging in the mail you getting a nutrient, not a pollutant. When it is used in building applications it is still okay because, just like wood, if it’s kept indoors under a roof and a wall assembly, it will last effectively and definitely. But at the end of the building’s life, which will come, you’re left with something that is not toxic and doesn’t have harmful compounds in it.
WUNDERDING: And what about the economic aspect?
Eben Bayer: Beyond the significant sustainability benefits and the human health effects, the process is actually really economical. You’re using relatively low-value substrates – wood chips or agricultural waste, the organism replicates, so you don’t need a lot of this material, it makes itself, and your processor capital cost to build a factory are also relatively low and I think that was an important factor in helping us move beyond niche activities as well. And then, I think the last part is just making sure you’re finding customers for which you’re really solving a true problem. Our best known customers are folks like Dell – they use the material to package their servers, but there are many other smaller companies you’ve never heard of that use our packaging because it works for them and as it is a benefit for the end-users not to get styrofoam with toxic white stuff.
WUNDERDING: What kind of organisms are you using to produce the bio composites? Are you working with genetically modified organisms?
Eben Bayer: Everything we use today are wild type, non engineered organisms. With that said, I think there’s tremendous value in engineering organisms for good. Don’t engineer plants that can take more herbicides or pesticides, which is what we’ve done with industrial crops, but engineer, in the case of mycelium, differences in the cell wall structure. It is already strong, but how can I make that cell wall even stronger? And it’s naturally fire resistant but not totally fire resistant, so how do we make that mycelium when it grows excrete more fire resisting compounds to make a safer board? Those are all areas where I think synthetic biology will be really impactful and we are investing a lot of effort and time into it. In fact, we have a 10 million dollar grant from DARPA to basically make our organism programmable or engineerable with synthetic biology.
We do have a research department at Ecovative – we have wet labs and chemical labs and mechanical engineering. But we are partnering with a bunch of universities as well, like Columbia University, for our synthetic biology work.
WUNDERDING: You started as a scientist and scientists usually aren’t trained to run a business. How did you learn to become a manager?
Eben Bayer: I guess, I learned to run the business, firstly by trail and error or trial by fire. You make a lot of mistakes along the way. And, candidly, it’s really also around the mentors and advisors you meet. People have helped me along the way and when finding the right mentors and the right advisors at the different stages in the companies life. The people who really helped me get started aren’t really involved in the company today, because their level of guidance and help was really perfect for an early stage startup but became less relevant over the time. And the people I work with now give me very different advice. And so I think it is all about growing as a person and continuing to grow as a person and working with others to grow as well.
WUNDERDING: What is your vision for Evocative Design and your bio composites?
Eben Bayer: For our packaging material, my goal or vision is to make sure we have that transferred to as many different production regions as possible. Packaging is by nature a regional business and it often is the last thing people think about when they are designing a product. My goal with that is: we’ve proven that it works with big brands, we’ve proven it works with smaller brands. Now, we want to get people in Germany producing it, we want people in the Netherlands and in China producing it. I want to see it produced in many different places. It’s not going to be in everything because it’s not the right solution for every package. So, in areas where you’re using styrofoam because you need it, as your product is delicate or fragile or heavy, we’d love to help replace it there. But if you’re shipping an iPhone you don’t even really need any kind of plastic packaging, you could use paper. So, I’d love to see it everywhere where plastic foams are used.
WUNDERDING: You have a new special product just here around your wrist. What is different about this one?
Eben Bayer: I’m tremendously excited about this textile which this wrist band is made out of. It is somewhere between leather and a silk-like material and we are just starting the process of scaling that and are starting to work with brands and customers. We are really excited to take that to scale and it’s designed to be scaled around the world by fitting into existing mushroom farms. The material is based on 100% mycelium, in comparison, all of our packaging is a mixture of mycelium and agricultural waste, but this is like a purified form of mycelium and it’s grown into the structure. So we don’t assemble it out later, it comes out of the mold like this fluffy full grown sheet, that you can then process into a textile.