In order to grow Ecocradle, all one really needs is darkness, H2O, and bio-waste (rice hulls or seed husks that Eben plans to source locally). And of course MycoBond, aka the roots of a proprietary North Eastern mushroom, which works by growing around the particles and acting as the glue between the discarded materials. Electricity is only needed at the beginning of the process, to steam-clean the feed-stock of any alien spores or contaminates, and not for very much longer. Gavin, who worked on optical apparatuses for the Large Hadron Collider’s little brother in the US before helping to start Ecovative, is spearheading a project funded by the NSF to investigate the essential oils found in most herbs. Gavin has discovered that a solution of rosemary or thyme extract and water will clean their seed husks better than any power-hungry steam process ever could. Gavin and Eben want to take their plant off the grid, and they are getting close.
The Ecovative Research facility is situated in a nondescript corrugated brown metal building off Cohoes Road. Inside, engineers tool around the factory floor on home-modified razor scooters, whizzing by a conference room painted forest green, with notices for mass bike rides tacked onto corkboard; a replica of Darth Vader’s helmet, sculpted from Ecocradle material, sits in the lobby.
The molding and filling apparatus, which only takes up one-fifth of the total floor space, is built entirely out of repurposed materials: a trashed steel riveter from a department store, a re-tooled asparagus blancher as the cleaning apparatus, along with various other homemade contraptions of uncertain purpose. Eben and Gavin are essentially starting from scratch with their invention, and the prospect is not without risks. “The first ones in on something always have problems,” says Gavin. “Luckily, we have a broad array of patents.”
Currently there is no scientific limit on the applications of their material, though Eben is strictly against any military use. Ecocradle meets all required “drop and cushion” standards for the shipping industry. And just like Styrofoam, Eben can cater to anyone’s needs: “We can change the weight and density by changing the growth conditions and initial packing density. The process is completely tunable.” On top of all that, when you throw Ecocradle away, it disappears in almost as little time as it takes to make—better yet, throw it in your garden and forgo the composting aids this year.
Ecovative Design may spark a revolution in waste management theory or a specific industry turn-around in packaging; it may just become another option to choose from. Hopefully, it will be all three. But can you eat it? Eben smiled, “Technically, it is edible, but it’s the seed hulls and husks, the stuff the animals won’t even eat.”
When Eben and Gavin started Ecovative in 2007, the proverbial shit—and not the good kind that mushrooms grow on—had hit the economic fan. “It was virtually impossible to find investment capital,” Eben said of starting up. “There was a 15K grant and we got 25K from one investor, but that was it.” As any entrepreneur will tell you, 40 grand to start a business is next to nothing.
Another problem that Eben began to encounter was the use of the word “green” in his pitches. “There was opposition to using the word green to market us,” he said. Why? Well “green” usually means “too expensive to justify” or “impractical for mass production,” or worse yet, both. Eben changed the pitch a bit, touting Ecocradle as an efficient product that just happened to be green, and it worked, allowing them to get a better foothold in the investment world. Though Eben isn’t allowed to say who just yet, they’re currently speaking to at least two Fortune 500 companies about switching from traditional Styrofoam packing to Ecocradle, contracts that could help catapult Eben and Gavin’s bedroom experiment to the big leagues. The traditional chemical industry, however, isn’t going to go down without a fight.