When Eben Bayer picked up William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things in college, there was a connection. Bayer had a humble childhood on a farm in Vermont and at the time he read this book, he was studying mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This trifecta was the perfect catalyst to inspire him to start his own company.
Now founder and CEO of Ecovative, a company that builds furniture and other building products from natural materials, Bayer’s inspiration was spurred into action reading the pages of HIVE 2016 dean McDonough’s book, which explained that we not only can reduce waste, but we can eliminate the concept of waste—that products don’t have to be less bad, that they can actually be more good.
Let’s break down the trifecta. As Bayer was studying mechanical engineering, he also started to understand that the way that nature operates is far more sophisticated. With access to technology at his fingertips and a pure desire to help human kind, Bayer teamed with Gavin McIntyre to create Ecovative in 2007. Since then, they have been blazing trails with their pioneer breakthroughs in the field of bio-science. They are using the concept of biofabrication, or growing living things into products or materials, which other companies are exploring as well. Ecovative was the first to make the connection to use the mushroom component mycelium—what they call “nature’s glue”—as an alternative to toxic chemical glues to bind materials together.
“I believe that the future of material science lays at the intersection of biology and materials,” Bayer states. “If you really look at nature, you will see that all functions, like the ability to hear, think, and see, are found in living systems and that’s especially true for materials. The suite of abilities of nature is incredible. Any sufficient advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature. We have been able to duplicate that over years with synthetic materials, but we pay a price for that. There are toxins involved in that. My idea was to use the living organism as the final product. I like humans and I like the planet Earth. And I want them to stick around. I want to avoid the toxicity that we are loading into our lives.”
MycoBoard—one of the materials Ecovative created and a HIVE 100 Innovation Award winner—is a customizable, sustainable engineered wood made from natural materials. The process leverages mycelium and resin technology to bind together a variety of lignin and cellulose-based loose materials and agricultural waste, such as flax, canola, hemp, and recycled wood, to create panels for construction. The panels can be molded into custom shapes and given a number of finishes, so they can be used for construction or to create anything from furniture to cabinetry. The material is formaldehyde free, VOC free, and fire resistant.
Ecovative's product gives builders and designers a safe, healthy way to use wood for their projects and meet their design, production, and delivery needs while contributing to the building industry’s sustainability goals. The mycelium-based biomaterial eliminates formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals that are often present in particle board, and transforms waste materials into something that can be utilized. MycoFoam also replaces polystyrene and other petroleum-based foams in packaging, horticulture, and building construction.
Circling back to Bayer’s inspiration and McDonough’s thought process: if you use Styrofoam and it ends up in a park, it’s a pollutant. But if you use something like Ecovative’s MycoFoam and it ends up in a park, then it’s OK. It’s not only less bad, it’s more good.
"William McDonough sets our vision and inspires us to execute," Bayer says.
In response, McDonough enjoys the work Ecovative is doing. "It is especially exciting to me to see innovations that are so natural and so clearly well intentioned as what Bayer is doing with mycelium for building products," McDonough says. "It has a deep beauty in it, a kind of magic I like to characterize as 'discovering the obvious.'”
Bayer has aspirations that his products and his processes will be able to change the housing industry that traditionally lags in terms of innovation. “We are going to see a flip in the coming years when these new materials will be first deployed in housing,” he says. “From a consumer standpoint, we will finally start to see better performing products that don’t harm you.”
In the HIVE 100 Innovation spotlight, Bayer understands that “innovation comes from people trying to solve problems, and that it doesn’t come from incrementalism. There are a lot of people of all ages who have a knowledge of how to take care of planet Earth. People now want and need to look for more sustainable products and processes, and this is driving innovation.”
In the meantime, Bayer and his team at Ecovative are launching a full line of natural grown furniture that incorporates not only the material side of the equation, but puts it together into a beautiful consumer product.