Mycelium innovation platforms

Filamentous fungi to biofabricate new foods, goods, and infrastructure

Mycological biofabrication: mushrooms are a revolution in manufacturing

There is a single technology that could replace a significant part of the most ecologically disastrous materials we use: plastics, concrete, insulation, leather, meat, and even more. Mycelium – the vegetative form of multi-cellular filamentous fungi consisting of thousands of interwoven root-like strands called hyphae – is that technology, which we are just starting to take seriously.

There may be as many as six times more species of fungi than there are plants, and the fungal kingdom is every bit as exotic and diverse as plant and animal life. There are nearly infinite ways to leverage fungal biodiversity, like fermentation of pharmaceuticals with yeast, making cheese from cream, and foraging for culinary mushrooms, but this newsletter only covers only a tiny fraction: applications of filamentous mycelium (sometimes called solid-state fermentation).

How it works

Fabrication with mycelium is the biological equivalent of the plastic injection moulding with petrochemicals. The general concept is that the mycelium of a fungal inoculant will grow and feed on a carbohydrate-rich substrate (like corn husks or wood shavings) until it colonizes the 3D space with dense, interlocking fibers of chitosan (what the cell walls of mycelium are made of; the same stuff as insect exoskeletons).

Many of these process parameters can be tweaked to get different results: fungal species/strain, substrate/feedstocks, nutrient additives, bioprocess system design, container/bioreactor shape, CO2 and water levels, temperature, post-production processing, and more.

There are three primary reasons why mycelium is sustainable and efficient: circularity, flexibility, and functionality.

  • Circularity. Fungi are nature’s fundamental scavengers and recyclers, driving decomposition of organic material and even solid rock through powerful enzymes only fungi produce; they are not picky eaters. This allows us to use waste streams as the primary inputs in production while also displacing petrochemical-based products with those that more readily biodegrade.

  • Flexibility. The same production process allows for creation of a huge number of products with relatively modest tweaks to the process, which explains the emergence of mycelium “platform” companies producing disparate product lines. I dive into the breadth of applications in the next section.

  • Functionality. Why switch from existing product paradigms? Mycelium is uniquely functional. It can provide thermal insulation and fire resistence, is especially lightweight, can self-repair damage, and possesses antimicrobial qualities, in addition to story-telling benefits.

Applications

Applications for mycelium are broad and impactful. Below, I’ll highlight a few of the major categories I’ve seen research or commercialization of so far.

Market leaders

It seems to me that most innovative applications in this space are being driven by entrepreneurs who have been “innoculated” by a fascination by fungi and have built startups around the concept of biofabrication with mycelium. Below, I provide a sampling of market-leading companies, listed oldest to youngest. I exclude large chemicals companies that have broad patent portfolios in the space, particularly DSM, DuPont, and Novozymes. It looks like the major clusters are in the Denver, CO area and the Berkeley, CA area.

  • Ecovative. The godfather of industrial mycelium innovation. Has a “mycelium foundry” (I’m jealous) and has spun out multiple companies, including Atlast Food Co which successfully launched a myco-bacon in late 2020. Raised over $30 million, including funds from the U.S. EPA, NSF, SBA (SBIR recipient), and USDA. Founded in Albany, New York in 2007.

  • Bolt Threads. Maker of mycelium leather in addition to spider silk textiles (see my last post). Commercializing their leather in 2021 with fashion partners including Adidas, Kering, and lululemon. Raised over $214 million from VCs, including Peter Thiel’s and Eric Schmidt’s respective funds. Founded in Berkeley, California in 2009.

  • MycoWorks. Maker of mycelium leather for footwear and fashion. Founded in Berkeley, California in 2013. Has raised over $62 million, including checks from Natalie Portman, John Legend, and SOSV.

  • MycoTechnology Inc. Ferments rice and pea with shiitake mycelium for a functional proteins and sweetners, whose clients include the world’s largest meat company, JBS (through their OZO plant-based meat line). Has raised nearly $130 million. Founded in Denver in 2013.

  • MYCL Mycotech Lab. Maker of mycelium bags, clothing, statues, furniture, and more through partnerships with designers. Founded in Bandung, Indonesia in 2015.

  • MOGU. Biofabrication laboratory working on construction materials and food from agricultural waste streams. Founded in Milan, Italy in 2015.

  • Meati. Formerly dba Emergy Labs and BTRFY Foods, they produce steak, fish fillets, and chicken breast analogs from mycelium produced via liquid state fermentation then pressed into form. Has raised $33 million. Founded in Boulder, Colorado in 2016.

  • MushLabs. Cultivates mycelial biomass in large fermenters for food applications. Raised $10 million. Founded in Berlin, Germany in 2018.

  • Shenzhen Zeqingyuan Tech. Shenzhen, China based startup that develops fungi-based bio-degradable materials from agricultural sidestreams with a focus on packaging and biofertilizer, from what I can find online.

According to two recent patent analyses (see sources below), the vast majority of relevant patents in food, materials, and chemicals are held by applicants in the U.S., China, EU (particularly the Netherlands), and Japan, primarily by the three large chemical companies mentioned above. These patents, of which at least 500 appear to have been granted, seem to run the gambit of production processes, applications, and use of feedstocks. This will likely lead to harmful IP battles down the road (see biotech IP disputes) but it makes me feel better to know that the U.S patent office granted approximately 4,000 cannabis-related patents between 2012 and 2019 alone, so this is probably normal.

I am insanely excited to see the role of mycelium in society in 20 years.

xx

Thanks for reading, and feel free to subscribe and share with the buttons below. If you’d like a deeper dive into the world of mycelium (and fungi more broadly), I’m current reading Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake and couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

-Nate

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Sources:
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
Cerimi, K., Akkaya, K.C., Pohl, C. et al. Fungi as source for new bio-based materials: a patent review. Fungal Biol Biotechnol6, 17 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40694-019-0080-y
Huettner, S. et al. Recent Advances in the Intellectual Property Landscape of Filamentous Fungi, Mycorena.com (2020), https://mycorena.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/20200415_Mycorena_Fungi_IP_Whitepaper.pdf
Bayer, E., The Mycelium Revolution Is upon Us, Scientific American (2019). https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/
Elsacker, E. et al. A comprehensive framework for the production of mycelium-based lignocellulosic composites, Science of The Total Environment, (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969720319446)
https://www.dezeen.com/2013/10/20/mycelium-chair-by-eric-klarenbeek-is-3d-printed-with-living-fungus/
https://materialdistrict.com/article/bags-shoes-mushroom-leather/