Eben Bayer graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2007, a dual major in Mechanical Engineering and Product Design and Innovation; he is now the CEO and cofounder, along with fellow RPI grad Gavin McIntyre, of Ecovative Design. As I let Gavin out of the sliding door (it only opens from the outside), he explains that he leaves for DC in a few hours to meet with the National Science Foundation about possible funding. Eben has just returned from Europe and needs to be back at the lab for a client call in 40 minutes; as we sit down, both order coffee. “I wanted to fly back tonight, but they book the tickets,” Gavin says. “The government always wants to give you a hotel,” adds Eben. I nod, pretending to feel their pain. With the beginning of Ecovative and the invention of their MycoBond technology, Eben and Gavin are on the cusp of a plastics revolution, so it’s no surprise that everybody wants to talk to them. By creating a self growing bio-material that does exactly what Styrofoam can do, at almost half the expended energy and the same cost, this could be the end of, as Eben calls it, that “toxic white stuff,” and potentially an entire industry.
Eben was born and raised in Vermont on his parents’ farm outside of Killington, which at one point accounted for more than one percent of Vermont’s maple syrup output. Growing up in the north country gave Eben an appreciation for the natural world, and also introduced him to the very thing that, years later, would be an essential part of his breakthrough in materials: mushrooms.
After graduating, Eben worked for Applied Research Associates designing the armor for humanitarian de-mining devices. The job was interesting, and helped him to gain an understanding of how to protect delicate mechanisms, while at the same time posing a tricky question: How do you create protective material that’s tough enough to actually protect, yet environmentally sustainable? “Binding agents are always the problem when creating bio-mass,” Eben says, “The question became, how do you grow a glue?” It was then that Eben recalled his youth in Vermont, and the curious bonding power of mushroom roots.
After lunch, on the way back to the factory, Eben and Gavin discuss the week’s meetings and phone calls at a furious clip, their thoughts only half articulated to each other, but somehow understood. I have a hard time following. The rain is coming down pretty heavily now, and Eben never seems to hit the breaks, as numerous test products and mushroom derivations roll around the van. I joke nervously that maybe they could repair the dented van with Ecocradle. Gavin responds, in earnest, “90 percent of cars are made out of plastics and foam.” Eben smiles, “We’re already on it.”
Eben and Gavin started cooking up the mushroom mixtures that would eventually become Ecocradle in Gavin’s kitchen, growing the stuff under his bed. “Another problem with bio-mass is that it never does the same thing twice,” Eben said about starting to experiment with mushrooms. “You can try a hundred different approaches and only one may work.” This arrangement worked for a time, but they needed more space, along with a cleaner workroom to avoid contamination. Given the tech they now have, and the state of his dorm room, Gavin is surprised they even got anything to work at all. They came across an old dark room in the basement at the RPI Incubator where they had some classes together. The dusty space had a ventilator hood and cleanable metal surfaces; it was exactly what they needed to continue their work.