Ecovative is taking on an important, intractable problem: foamed polystyrene. The question, as with many of its peers, is whether it is can take a good idea, and have a real impact on the way things are done.
The single greatest contributor to landfill, polystyrene is ubiquitous, practically non-biodegradable, toxic to marine and other life, and not really recyclable (it can be re-used, but the secondary product is often thrown away). And, until recently, there were few alternatives, save for not using it.
New York-based Ecovative is mixing agricultural waste, such as rice husks and oat hulls, with "fungal mycelium" (mushroom roots) to create super-strong materials that are fire-resistant, and use no heat, electricity, or oil to produce. It is already working with Dell and Steelcase on packaging materials, with Ford on bumpers and side doors, and getting into the construction materials and furniture markets.
But can it really reach its potential if it is has to grow, instead of manufacture, its products?
Chief scientist Gavin McIntyre is confident. In May, Ecovative received investment worth $6.5 million, including funding from 3M, and it recently acquired a building in Green Island, New York, where it will build its first full factory.
"It’s going to be like a vertical farm," he says. "It’s got 30-foot ceilings. We’re going to have racks upon racks of incubating parts, which have a five-day growth cycle. They slowly transition through the staged rack, starting at one side, until they complete colonization and are on the other side, ready for processing. Our entire process is automated and continuous."
The facility, which will open next spring, will be able to produce 100,000 units a month. And Ecovative is planning another, similar facility in Texas, which it plans to open in 2013.
McIntyre, who set up Ecovative with his college friend Eben Bayer in 2007, says the company is "easily" able to compete with traditional producers for custom-molded units, because its one-off castings are cheaper to engineer than polystyrene, which has high tooling costs.
But more common products are harder to match. "The things that we can’t compete against today are things like cups and coolers that are made at very large volumes and are a very standard shape," he says.
To get to the next level, Ecovative plans to license its designs, both in the U.S. and overseas. "The primary aim is to be a materials science firm. We are just manufacturing at the moment to mitigate the risk, and prove out the market," McIntyre says.
Ultimately, he believes companies will switch to eco-packaging products if they are both environmentally sound and cost competitive. The great advantage of Ecovative’s products is that they can made anywhere, using whatever raw material is available.
"We’re not prone to the same price volatility of petrochemicals or natural gas, which are finite resources, and where there is lots of competition. If we ever reach peak-rice hulls, we can always transition to buckwheat hulls."
[Image: Flickr user born1945]