While Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre were earning dual bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and product design and innovation from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), it is clear they were staying awake in class.
Upon graduation, they started their own company, Ecovative Design, which uses natural materials to create “cost competitive alternatives to synthetics like foams and plastics.” Earth911 recently spoke with CEO and co-founder, Bayer, to discuss the company’s compostable creations and plans for the future.
Just Add Water
Ecovative currently sells two products as compostable alternatives to the current materials used for packaging and insulation. Both are made using technology developed by Bayer and McIntyre during their senior year, in a class aptly named “Inventor’s Studio.” Here is how the magic happens:
- Agricultural byproducts such as seed husks, which would normally be agricultural waste, are used as the building blocks.
- Once the seed husks are wet, they are combined with mushroom roots, which act as a binding agent. With a conventional product like polystyrene, petroleum is used as the binder.
- The seed husks serve as “food” for the mushroom and the self-assembly begins. According to Bayer, “The factory is the organism” in this highly efficient process.
- Mushrooms like darkness, so no light or energy is needed until the end of the process when the material is dried out and shaped.
- The “acorn” composite material can be shaped into packaging material for everything from televisions to medicine, and test installations of "greensulate," the organic insulation have already begun.
Fresh Out of College
Ecovative was officially founded in May 2007, when Bayer and McIntyre graduated, but both founders did extensive work on their products while still at RPI.
McIntyre even grew one of the composites under his bed, which it turned out was an ideal place to grow mushrooms. They both continue to maintain strong ties to their professor from the inventor’s class, who acts as one of the company’s advisers.
Packaging Without the Polystyrene
Ecovative doesn’t just reuse waste as the basis of its product; the company takes it a step further up the sustainable manufacturing food chain by upcycling waste into a product that once again has value. Agricultural waste such as cotton burrs, rice husks and hazelnut husks serve as the building blocks.
Couple that with the fact that the company has committed to creating manufacturing facilities close to the farms where the waste is produced, and Ecovative will soon be powering its first facility with hydro and solar power.
"We design our products with the idea that in nature there is no litter," Bayer says. "And we are setting up an infrastructure to follow this model and relieve a waste stream in the process."
Primed for New Packaging
Ecovative is eager to provide customers with products that have a much lower ecological footprint than its conventional counterparts. Bayer says many companies have approached Ecovative, eager to find an alternative to polystyrene packaging due to consumer demand and increased corporate consciousness.
Inventions and Innovations
Thanks to grants from heavy hitters such as the U.S. EPA and the USDA, and a recent 500,000 Euro grand prize for their business plan, awarded by the Picnic Green Challenge, Ecovative is working with a growing team of scientists and entrepreneurs to expand its national and global ventures.
Bayer says the composite material they have developed has the potential to replace many products that are currently made of synthetic plastics, such as laminates, structural cores (used in everything from tables to wind turbines), and building insulation.
"We really don’t need to make these types of products to last 1,000 years," Bayer says. "Our products are durable, but will also eventually biodegrade when no longer needed."
Just Happy to Be Here
As a driving force behind the startup, Bayer has been called upon to fulfill a variety of tasks during his tenure as CEO, and he enjoys them all.
"I’m thrilled by everything from my duties as janitor to finance guy," he says. "I love thinking about manufacturing and innovative ways to leverage this material."
But Bayer cites the collaboration with his team as the most exciting and enjoyable part of his job.
"I get to work with a great team of thinkers and doers, from the manufacturing pros to designers to the scientists, who all bring their unique perspectives and strengths," he says.
Favorite of the Three R’s
As an entrepreneur whose main resource is an agricultural byproduct formerly known as waste, reuse tops Bayer’s list, "We are upcycling waste products and with the use of very little energy, turning them into a higher value product."
Read more from Libuse Binder at Weekly Way.