October 27, 2015

How the CEO of Ecovative, Eben Bayer, is Using Biology to Create Disruptive Solutions

Eben Bayer

We’ve spoken recently about Ecovative, a material science company which uses fungi as materials to produce replacements for fibreboard and packaging. The company is an excellent example of the future of biofabrication, using biological materials and clever innovation to create a set of desirable products for both consumer and business needs.

We’ll be seeing these products close up, as Ecovative will be providing us with the stage materials for the upcoming SynBioBeta SF conference, thus giving all our speakers a solid, synthetic biology, base from which to talk. Ecovative’s CEO, Eben Bayer, will be speaking at the conference, and we’ve been lucky enough to grab a bit of his time to ask a few questions:

To start, please tell us a bit about Ecovative

Ecovative is a material science company that produces high performing and cost effective bio-based resins, biocomposites, and foam-like materials. We transform low-grade feedstocks, such as agricultural biomass or wood fibers, into programmable biological resins and composite products through a solid state culture process.

Through this technology platform, we develop and manufacture products for a wide range of markets including commercial furniture, protective packaging, building and construction, and consumer goods. We have an internal team of extremely talented engineers that custom design and build all of our manufacturing equipment. Since this is an entirely new way of manufacturing products, there aren’t many options for pre-fabricated equipment that is compatible with our biological process. Sometimes we completely gut and rebuild a piece of equipment that we purchase, or the team fabricates a piece of equipment from scratch.
 

What are your long-term development goals? Where do you see the organisation in 5-10 years?

Right now, our concentration is mainly focused on expanding our Myco Board product line. Ecovative is currently supplying molded composites to specialty high-end furniture manufacturers, replacing the Urea-Formaldehyde (UF) currently used in plywood, particle board or medium density fiber (MDF) board.

Our long-term objective in the engineered wood space is to competitively replace the use of UF, MDI, and other synthetic resins at the wood mill level. Ecovative’s solid-state growth process is particularly well suited to this industry as the existing feedstock (wood fiber) is a complimentary nutrient for resin synthesis (leveraging existing mill feedstocks).

We are continuing to develop materials for a variety of new markets over the next 5-10 years, including insulation, floral foams, seed starters, and shoe soles.
Perhaps the biggest development goal that will begin to show up on the market over this time period is using synthetic biology to better control the micro-scale morphology of our resin system, the chemical composition of the biomass which binds fibers together, and of course, the rich variety of enzymes and chemicals we can create during resin growth.

What do you think will be the next ‘big thing’ in bio-production?

There are some tremendously exciting opportunities developing at the intersection of 3D printing and biological engineering. I believe in the coming years we will have the ability to create entirely new classes of devices using these technologies. These will bring exciting new functions to the consumer class, but could also transform life for those most in need.  

Personally, what brought you into this field? Was it a decisive moment or a gradual process?

It was a gradual process getting into this field. I have always been interested in natural materials, particularly the beauty of living things, like wood. This mostly came from the many opportunities I had growing up on the family farm to spend time in and with nature- observing how living systems create solutions for the environments they thrive in.

While attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I began exploring how to harness natural organisms to create materials. Over the course of two semesters I actively studied the binding properties of mycelium and how I could utilize these properties to grow natural composite materials.

When I graduated in 2007, my professor Burt Swersey, encouraged Gavin McIntyre and I to drop the jobs we had lined up and pursue this technology into a business. He became our first investor and it’s been a constantly evolving journey since that point.

Is there such a thing as a typical day for you? How does it usually proceed?

I can’t say there’s really a typical day for me. I spend a great deal of time traveling to customers, partners, and investors. I also attend conferences and do numerous outreach opportunities during any given month.

When I am home, my typical winter season day starts by building a fire in the woodstove and brewing a quart of tea to drink over morning emails. I typically am in the office by 8. While in the office, I attend operational and production meetings, and spend time walking the floor and interacting with the staff… making sure that the product and our people are happy and doing well (or, depending on your perspective, maybe just driving people nuts).

I try to leave by 4 or 5 and make time for a run, a fun off-grid project, and of course family. After dinner I normally spend a few more hours on Ecovative activities before bed.
Eben Bayer from Ecovative (a SynBioBeta SF 2015 sponsor) will be speaking at our upcoming conference – be sure to come along if you’d like to hear more from him!