How mycelium can help accelerate material circularity with Forager’s Gavin McIntyre
Ecovative, a leading company in the mycelium space, recently launched a new brand called Forager to design and develop mycelium materials for apparel, foams, and insulation.
Forager is accelerating circularity in fashion, footwear, and automotive industries with mycelium materials, like next-gen mycelium hides, to meet the fast-growing consumer demand for products that sustain people and the planet.
Gavin McIntyre, Co-founder & Chief Commercialization Officer at Forager gave us an inside look at how the magic happens.
Photo Credit: ECOVATIVE/FORAGER
How did Ecovative get started and what do you do?
Ecovative makes a range of planet-friendly materials with mycelium, the 'root structures' of mushrooms. We started with biodegradable packing foam but have expanded to producing vegan bacon, premium leather-like hides and plastic-free foams for fashion and apparel.
It all started in 2007, when Eben Bayer and I were at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, in a course called Inventor's Studio with professor Burt Swersey. Swersey had a huge influence on our approach to design and problem-solving, and was an early champion of our idea to produce materials by binding agricultural byproducts together with mycelium, forming compostable packing foams, insulation, and construction materials.
Since then, our technology has come a long way, and we are now innovating with pure mycelium materials. The company has grown immensely too, and, as interest in sustainable biomaterials skyrockets, we know that Ecovative is going to play a key role by showing what mycelium is capable of.
Why is Forager working on leather and foams (soft goods)?
Mycelium materials have transformative potential for a number of industries—fashion, food, automotive, furniture, construction and shipping, to name a few. Each industry has its own history, technicalities and market landscape, so it makes sense that instead of one company specializing in everything, Ecovative can focus on what we do best—innovating mycelium materials and technologies—while specialized divisions, such as Forager, can focus on developing market-ready products with leading brands.
Drawing from our 15 years of experience, and a dedicated mycelium research team, we test and evolve materials specific to a brand's needs, then help them bring those products to market. Basically, we're trying to create a productive dynamic of collaboration between science and industry, with the idea that gains in one area will advance all the others as well, like in an ecosystem.
The why is simple: the soft goods industries are eager for more sustainable, Earth-friendly alternatives. That's especially true of the plastics used both in structural foams and finished or reinforced leather, among a number of other environmental concerns to which mycelium offers an exciting solution.
Your products are made from mycelium. Can you explain what mycelium is for a nontechnical audience?
Almost everyone will associate fungi with mushrooms, but many don't know that the mushroom is essentially the fruit of the fungus, roughly like the apple of a tree (people may disagree about which is tastier). Mycelium takes the form of a network of microscopic fibers that spread throughout the forest floor, and plenty of other places. Even the mold on your bread is a mycelium, and although there are several key differences between that and the species we work with, all mycelium works in similar ways, forming complex meshworks of single-cell fibers as it seeks out nutrients and adapts to local conditions.
At Ecovative, we've mastered ways of controlling those conditions in order to guide the mycelium's growth, and create materials with many adjustable properties like flexibility, durability, water resistance, texture, and other desirable attributes, depending on the needs of the final product.
The Ecovative team cutting mycelium | Courtesy Ecovative/Forager
What is the process of bringing a new material, such as mycelium, to market?
As people become more aware of mycelium, and fungi generally, awareness of their value as a material is also growing. That increased awareness is helpful as brands look to meet the escalating demand for sustainable materials. We work directly with brands to develop and market products that showcase what is possible with mycelium. We benefit from the insights and feedback of our brand partners and their product developers, they make direct use of our expertise with mycelium, and together we advance this new class of material.
The key has been developing mycelium in partnership with existing industries so that it can be plugged right into existing supply chains. We're trying to reinvent materials, not the wheel—if you introduce a new material to a long-standing industry, it should function just like (or better than) what it's replacing. Hence, our hides perform like hides, our foams like foams.
Forager demonstrates our approach to this, by launching new divisions that specialize in a particular 'vertical' — for example fashion and apparel, using mycelium foams and leather-like hides. Mycelium is incredibly versatile, and our materials can be taken directly by tanneries to slip right into existing supply chains, which makes it attractive to anyone striving for circularity, hence the growing interest from brands. We're happy to have so many premier, sustainability-minded brand partners right at the outset.
What advantages does mycelium offer for leather and foam that are unique?
Mycelium is an amazing material in a number of ways. For one, it's completely natural. We talk about mycelium as networks of fibers, but they aren't nylon or plastic fibers — they're formerly-living cells, which means that they are completely compostable after their use.
Mycelium is naturally tough and resilient, capable of expressing supple textures and beautiful finishes without plastic. It's naturally white, too, which saves big steps in the tanning process. It's also consistent, free of scars and blemishes that can affect the price of a hide, and the amount of land and resources used by a vertical mycelium farm is much lower than the animal agriculture required to produce the equivalent amount of material.
As for foams, even so-called 'bio-based' foams often involve plastic anyway, and are processed to the point that, chemically, they might as well be plastics. Mycelium hits all the performance markers used in the leather and foam industries, but it grows on stalks, husks, hulls and other leftovers of agriculture, produces far less CO2, and creates water and compost as the primary physical byproducts. There's really no other material that compares.
You are working on two seemingly different products: both leather and foam. How can you address both with one technology?
Testament to the amazing versatility of mycelium, it is ideal for both applications in unique ways. As materials, foam and leather are characterized by their porosity, flexibility and density. In the case of hides, we treat the mycelium as a tissue, which of course it is—not entirely different from animal skin.
With foams, we're thinking of mycelium more as a polymer, a complex chain of molecules with specific properties. And again, mycelium is a natural polymer, what we'd call a biopolymer, made up of complexes of organic molecules that give it the same useful qualities as a plastic foam, but with the benefit of not involving any petrochemicals, and being fully biodegradable. After all, mycelium are the great recyclers of nature; in the forest, they turn organic debris—like old leaves and logs—into the makings of new life. Mycelium are reliable and versatile, both in the forest and as a material.
Forager hides | Courtesy Ecovative/Forager
Can you speak to the circularity of Forager’s materials?
Like 'regenerative' or 'sustainable', the term 'circular' is used a lot as a buzzword these days. But that doesn't mean it isn't incredibly important. Circularity is the idea that whatever you're doing doesn't extract from or compromise the planet's natural cycles. Instead, a circular process or product sustains and enhances these cycles of life on Earth, not unlike the way a regenerative farmer naturally builds soil through crop diversity and good stewardship, instead of gradually degrading it through monoculture and chemical additives.
Circularity is fundamental to what we do—We take the organic outputs of the agricultural industry, and turn them into an input as food for mycelium. In permaculture this is called 'closing a loop'. Once our fungi have finished growing, what's left is compost that can then be used to grow more plants. Meanwhile, the pure mycelium is processed into a product, and whenever that product is thrown away, the mycelium are turned into nutrients by the microbiota in the earth. Circularity is how life works, and it's the only way forward to living well on a healthy planet.
How does Forager analyze the environmental impact of your products? Can you share any comparisons of your material to animal-based leather?
We look at our materials as meeting the excess capacity of existing industries—meat, plastic foams, etc—stemming the growth of unsustainable outcomes like plastic pollution. We count it as a success for every brick of packing foam that's mycelium instead of plastic, or every pound of mycelium bacon that didn't require the energy and extraction of their animal counterparts.
One exciting aspect of our technology is that, by using different strains of mushrooms and controlling conditions, we can grow hides, foams, or meat, all in the same facility. A key part of the picture is how our materials are plugged into existing supply chains and how brands work them into the final products. We are working towards a comprehensive LCA across all our verticals, but it is a complex process that takes time. Our cooperative with companies like PVH and Bestseller will also help us answer these questions as we take mycelium materials over the finish line to consumer markets.
How does Forager work with brands to advance material development?
Forager is part of the Fashion for Good Cooperative, involving brands like PVH and Bestseller. We bring the mycelium expertise, and as product and market experts, they can tell us what they need from our materials in terms of qualities and performance. This is what we call our Mycelium Foundry service—we test different mycelium strains from our massive library, and tune their growth to create a material matched to the needs of our brand partners. From there, they work the material into a new product, and the process continues as the materials and methods continue to mature.
What's great about this arrangement is that any innovation for one mycelium material can improve all the other ones, too, since they are all operating with the same underlying technologies. We see our partnerships a bit like mycelium itself, where growth in one area supports everything else.
Do you consider your leather material as a replacement for animal-based leather? If so, what performance metrics does Forager aim to meet to be considered a replacement for animal-based leather? Can you share any of your performance metrics?
We see Forager hides as an alternative or supplement to leather, but one that points to the future of materials in general. Leather is built on centuries of tradition, and there's no way to simply replace that amount of generational and institutional knowledge with a new technology. Yet our hides can be taken up by artisans, such as tanneries, who can work with them the way they would with an animal-based hide.
At the same time, there's no denying that we can and must find ways of making the things we use and love while also being good stewards of the planet. As more people and brands move towards sustainability and circularity, mycelium materials are ready to pick up that demand at scale. We are working to build productive partnerships with the existing leather supply chains and tanneries, and to make our hides an attractive option for those already working with animal-sourced hides.
The key is that our materials handle the same or better as what is already familiar. As for performance, we can say that our hides are competitive with traditional animal hides in elasticity, tensile strength, and density, with totally unique qualities for finish and texture. Our hides emerge ready to tan—no need for wet white or wet blue processing—without synthetics, scrims, plastics or pesticides, and are fully biodegradable. The mycelium fibers are water and heat resistant, while also being non-woven and breathable.
Mycelium growth process | Courtesy Ecovative/Forager
What kind of future do you see for biomaterials and where does forager fit into that picture?
In the near term, biotechnology is likely to nudge many industries towards greater circularity, as every industry rightly prioritizes sustainability. Biomaterials will help make the transition easier, as more and more people realize that it is possible to get premium quality products without diminishing the ecologies we depend upon. As biomaterials become more common, their true potential will begin to emerge, and that potential is transformative.
We're confident that biomaterials will redefine the way human beings make—literally grow—the things we need, from clothing and food to consumer products and even technology. In the longer term, this will hopefully shift manufacturing broadly to be much more integrated with and supportive of the cycles of life on Earth. At this point, that might sound like science fiction, but biology has worked out some incredible solutions to tough problems in the last four billion years, and we're only just scratching the surface of what's possible.
In the mycelium space, we're at the cutting edge of that transition, and in the 15 years since Ecovative launched we've seen mycelium materials advance incredibly fast. In another 15 years, most people will probably be familiar with biomaterials in general and mycelium specifically, with Forager being right at the turning point.