It’s often assumed that inventors have a single "aha" moment that leads them to a significant breakthrough in creating a revolutionary new product. Not so for Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, co-founders of Ecovative Design.
“There was no one spark, just lots of mistakes and collaboration,” says Bayer about the discovery that led the team to use fungal mycelium, the roots from mushrooms, to create packaging materials that could replace Styrofoam.
Five years ago, Bayer and McIntyre were in a class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., when they invented a natural product that works like plastic foam but is made from all organic materials that can be absorbed back into the environment. Upon graduation, the duo took their professor’s advice and opted to skip the job market for a shot at creating a financially viable product based on their eco-friendly invention.
Now, EcoCradle Mushroom Packaging has replaced plastic packing in a number of products for several large companies including Dell Computers.
The Green Island, N.Y., company has won number of prestigious awards, including the DuPont Packaging Innovation Diamond Award, the Greener Package “Innovator of the Year” award and Popular Science’s “Best of What’s New.”
Most recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded them the 2012 Environmental Quality Award, a prestigious honor highlighting the company’s significant contributions to greening communities.
In addition to creating an Earth-friendly product, the company has also developed an energy-efficient production process.
“We use recycled plastic to make the molds to grow the materials in the right shape,” Bayer says. “The amount of plastic that our molds use over and over again is the same amount that would be used once and then thrown away [in traditional plastic foam packaging.]”
In January, Ecovative announced a new partnership with Sealed Air Corporation, producers of BubbleWrap and other shipping materials. With 35 factories and global sales and distribution, the partnership will get EcoCradle into more packages and give Bayer and company time to focus on other uses for mycelium like building materials and car parts.
Ultimately, the company hopes to replace all disposable plastic products with sustainable options made from their processes. But, in order to do that, they need to prove that the product can hold up over time in all relevant conditions.
A partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is exploring the possibility of using Ecovative products to replace the foam buoys used in the ocean. So far, they’ve successfully reduced the amount of plastic entering the ocean upon launch, but the team needs to do more testing to find the right material composition so that mycelium buoys can last an appropriate amount of time in water while still breaking down fully when they are no longer needed.
The company also is working with Puma to offer mushroom-made flip-flops that can last for one to two years and break down to nothing if they wind up in the ocean. The hope is that this product will replace the large number of plastic flip-flops that collect in the water and wash up on beaches all over the world.
Looking forward, Bayer and team hope more companies like Puma will find uses for their invention. Judging from the reception thus far, it’s possible that some will have an "aha" moment of their own.
Get inspired: Learn about others who are making a difference with MNN's Innovation Generation project.