By: Sara Chemello
The search for biodegradable materials and products that fit the aspired circular economy model is a global priority in the race against climate change and degradation. Interestingly, a solution might just be found beneath our feet in the form of fungi.
When thinking of mushrooms, one rarely thinks of their potential to produce everything from plastics alternatives to leather substitutes to plant-based meat. However, R&D in mycelium technology has been underway for the past decade, attracting DARPA investments as well as billions in Venture Capital funding. The following article takes a deep dive into mycelium technology, the myriad of sustainable products it can produce, and its future potential.
What is mycelium?
Mycelium is the root structure of various fungi—of which mushrooms are the fruiting bodies. The fungi’s hyphae, create mycelium by secreting enzymes which break down food sources. Through this process, the mycelium grows to assemble a dense network of long, microscopic fibers that grow through the substrate. Instead of allowing the growth of the fruiting body (the mushroom) from the substrate, mycelium technology intervenes at this stage of the fungal life cycle. According to the wanted end product, mycelium can be modeled to build predictable structures by controlling temperature, CO2, humidity, and airflow.
What is mycelium technology?
Many different startups have emerged in the last decade and have created a myriad of different products using mycelium technology. The main categories of products that can be created using mycelium technology are:
Meat Alternatives. Evocative is a firm at the forefront of mycelial material, engineering, and bio-fabrication research. It was founded in 2007 by two Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students. In 2019 they received a $9mil DARPA grant and over $90mil in Series D funding and have developed two protected technologies. The first technology was named AirMycelium™. This technology produces parallel fibers into large format sheets. The mycelial fibers created are sliced and compressed into an edible meat alternative such as bacon (MyBacon). This process takes around 9 days to produce and is carried out in vertical farms.
Bio-fabrication. Ecovative’s second technology is called MycoComposite™. Essentially, mycelium binds itself with farming and forestry leftovers inside molds. This creates solid blocks of materials which can be used as eco-friendly packaging, construction materials, architectural elements, and more. This material is thus 100% biodegradable.
Sustainable Leather Alternatives. Another American startup, Mycoworks has received over $190 mil in funding and has invented a patented process called Fine Mycelium™. It engineer’s mycelium cells as they grow to create three dimensional structures partnered to create a sustainable leather. Mycoworks has partnered with Hermes to produce a sustainable leather bag called Silvania.
Why mycelium technology and why now?
Targets Pollution. Mycelium technology offers the undervalued opportunity of addressing multiple global issues at the same time. Firstly, it tackles pollution from the meat industry by sustainably producing meat alternatives. This is of particular relevance given that one third of all human emissions are caused by the world's food industry, with the production of meat being twice as polluting as that of plant-based foods. Secondly, most of the products produced with mycelium are fully biodegradable. This helps reduce the production of plastic materials and thus reduces pollution by promoting an example for a circular economy.
Timing. The technology requires short time frames: the accumulation of fibers becomes a visible speck after a few hours, a visible sheet after a day or two, and an 18-by-2-by-12-inch sheet weighing a couple of pounds within the course of a week. This makes it viable for mass production.
Economies of scale. Most of mycelium production worldwide occurs in vertical farms. These not only are sustainable but offer the opportunity of economies of scale with a small carbon footprint.
Sustainable: for the environment and the wallet. The technology is cheap, biodegradable, and eco-friendly, and may help reframe consumption habits away from our dominant approach of take, make and throw away. No toxic chemicals, plastic or other waste are involved in the production.
It is not hypothetical. The attention received by Venture Capital as well as the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) points to more investment in the technology and field, which suggests high potential for the future of the industry and the overall market.
Industry Going Forward
The mycelium industry has just started taking off, however given the advanced stage of the technology and the international investor attention, its potential is high and very relevant. The new exciting ventures and partnerships are endless and we will see an increase in the use of mycelium-technology products. Some examples are Kia Motors partnering with South Korean Mycel for its animal hyde interiors; as well as Stella McCartney and Reformation using Mycoworks’s mushroom leather. On top of this, the potential behind mushrooms is still very untapped: new research could mean our next wearables or computer chips will be powered by mushrooms.