- US mechanical engineers and eco-entrepreneurs Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre nominated for European Patent Office (EPO) prize for growing packaging and other sustainable materials from mushroom mycelium
- The inventors use mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, as a natural glue to bind together agricultural residue and produce a new material which is moulded into packaging or other end products
- On the basis of their invention, they set up a company providing a biodegradable and sustainable alternative to plastic and polystyrene foams
Munich, 7 May 2019 – The European Patent Office (EPO) announces that US mechanical engineers and product designers Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre have been nominated for the European Inventor Award 2019 as finalists in the “Non-EPO Countries” category, for developing a strong, non-toxic material grown from mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, which offers a sustainable and alternative to plastics and polystyrene foams.
The product is commercialised through their company, Ecovative Design, which they co-founded in 2007. The flexible, adaptable and biodegradable material is used in packaging and building materials, as well as in other applications including textiles and alternative proteins. Their company has partnered with several international firms to provide protective packaging for product shipment.
“Bayer and McIntyre have taken a green idea they had at university and created an innovative material and commercial product,” said EPO President António Campinos about their nomination as finalists for the European Inventor Award 2019. “Patents have helped them develop their technology and build their eco-friendly business.”
The winners of the 2019 edition of the EPO’s annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Vienna on 20 June.
Combining material engineering and biology to develop a growable glue
According to industry figures, 348 million tonnes of plastic were produced in 2017. Around 40% of this is used in single-use packaging, which is immediately discarded. Although some is recycled, the vast majority is either burned, or left to corrupt the environment in landfill sites or the ocean. Two US inventors – Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre – have created eco-friendly alternatives to synthetic packaging by using mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms.
Bayer grew up on his family’s farm in Vermont, and it was there that he noticed how fungi glued together piles of wood chips. “The forest has always been a source of inspiration for me and a place of peace, and it was part of the inspiration behind the concept of using mycelium as a binder to grow materials,” he says.
He and McIntyre met at university when studying mechanical engineers and product design, and it was when they participated in a course called the “Inventor’s Studio” that they drew on Bayer’s childhood observation. Lecturer and mentor Burt Swersey saw value in a mushroom-based material and encouraged them to work together on the invention. The pair made what they describe as their key breakthrough when they found that mycelium is capable of binding together more than just woodchips. Almost all agricultural waste such as corn husks, rice or hemp can be bound together using mycelium like a glue, and the resulting material configured into almost any shape. “We’ve leveraged natural materials as humans for centuries at this point, and it was really interesting that the kingdom of fungi, one of the most diverse that we have in nature, has been completely unexplored and untapped from a materials perspective. So that really provided us with a whole open field to explore,” says McIntyre.
After an initial period of trial and error, Bayer and McIntyre developed and perfected their process of biofabricating their material: live mycelium is fed agricultural waste in a mould or form at room temperature in typical warehouse conditions over several days. This results in a shaped, non-toxic and strong material free of fungi spores. The material is then dried and baked at precise temperatures – this renders it biologically inactive and ensures mushrooms do not start sprouting.
Importantly for packaging purposes, the material delivers a strength-to-weight ratio comparable to many plastic-based products and sells at a similar price. The material can be recycled or composted, and is biodegradable within 45 to 180 days. “Our mycelium materials are healthy for the planet because they are strong and durable when used as a packaging material, but they are grown with a fraction of the energy of conventional plastics. And at the end of this material’s useful life, you can actually compost it in your garden, it turns into a nutrient, not a pollutant,” adds Bayer.
Growing a materials science business
While still at university, the inventors filed their first provisional patent application at the US Patent and Trademark Office in December 2006, allowing the team to focus on conceptualisation and prototypes. A year later they had filed an international patent application which in turn made it possible to have their European patent granted in March 2016. They now have patent protection in 31 countries. “Since we created a new domain in material science, patents have become incredibly important to our organisation, allowing us to focus on our ongoing research efforts while extending the reach our products through licensing partnerships internationally,” says McIntyre.
On completing their studies, Bayer and McIntyre went straight on to co-found Ecovative Design. Their New York-based materials science company, where Bayer is CEO and McIntyre is Business Development Director, has raised about EUR 22.1 million in investments and grants to date, and currently employs around 45 people.
Today Ecovative supplies mycelium-based packaging to several companies for shipping. Ecovative also uses local supply chains, and raw waste materials are typically sourced within 100km of processing facilities. Business partners in the Netherlands, for example, use hemp biomass bought from local farmers to produce material under licence from Ecovative. This creates new revenue streams for farmers, reduces waste and eradicates the need to use fossil fuel-based feedstock.
The company now has various product platforms from which a range of specific products can then be created. One platform is used to grow complex biodegradable shapes according to specific densities and material compositions for applications ranging from packaging, home accessories and other smaller moulded shapes such as lampshades. Another platform enables the engineering of high-performance scaffolding that can be used in a range of applications, including wood and insulation; eco-friendly furniture; insulation for jackets, as well as resilient foams for footwear. And Bayer is even interested in using mycelium as an alternative protein source to meat.
About the EPO
With nearly 7 000 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the aim of strengthening cooperation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO’s centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million people. The EPO is also the world’s leading authority in patent information and patent searching.