hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




In lieu of plastic, mushrooms

Cambridge mycologist helps company develop fungi-based products


Contributing writer


Sue Van Hook is convinced that fungi hold one of the keys to saving the planet from choking on plastic.

A professional mycologist and a retired Skidmore College senior teaching associate, Van Hook has embarked on a new career as chief mycologist at Ecovative Design LLC. The award-winning green company aims to replace petroleum-based plastic foams with completely natural materials of equal or better performance and cost.

Ecovative’s new materials are created by growing fungi on agricultural waste.
“This stuff is the new plastic,” Van Hook said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one-quarter of the volume in the nation’s landfills is discarded plastic. More plastic waste washes into rivers and out to sea, where it injures marine life and collects in vast fields of floating debris.

In contrast, Ecovative’s products are completely biodegradable after they’ve served their purpose. The company says its “Mushroom Materials” require one-tenth of the energy consumption and emit one-eighth of the carbon dioxide over their life span when compared with the same unit or volume of polystyrene, which is commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam.

Ecovative was founded in 2007 by a pair of engineering students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre. Challenged in a senior-year course to devise a socially responsible, unique and innovative technology, Bayer, who had been impressed by the strength of fungi tendrils holding wood chips together, decided to see if fungi could replace plastic as the glue in composite materials. He teamed with McIntyre to explore the concept.

Their first attempts proved the idea had practical potential. They started the business upon graduation and opened their first lab in RPI’s business incubator. The company has since attracted federal, state, private and international grants and awards, most notably the 500,000-euro Postcode Lottery Green Challenge in 2008, equivalent to about $687,000 as of late March.
Today, Ecovative occupies a 32,000 square foot facility in Green Island, just north of Albany, with 60 employees.

“That’s 60 green jobs created, with federal, state and private funds, in the Capital District during a recession,” Van Hook pointed out.

Ecovative now makes packing materials for Dell computers, Steelcase office furniture, Crate & Barrel furnishings and Puma paddleboards. Packaging manufacturer Sealed Air, best known for its Bubble Wrap, is licensed to distribute Ecovative’s products in North America and Europe.
Ecovative plans to expand its offerings to more than just packaging. Structural materials and insulation products are in development.

How does it work?
Van Hook explained that the mushrooms we see are mostly the fruiting bodies of large networks of mycelium, or vegetative fibers, penetrating whatever the fungus grows on. Mycelium is composed of hyphae, rootlike structures that collect nutrients.

But where the roots of plants have cellulose cell walls, hyphae have a skin of chitin, the same substance as a crab shell. The chitin makes the hyphae very tough and strong.

So Ecovative inoculates sterilized woody agricultural wastes, such as seed hulls, stems or leaves, with mycelium and presses the mixture into molds. Without light, water or added energy, the mycelium grows into and bonds the substrate. After five days, the materials are removed from the molds and treated with heat to kill the mycelium. The resulting objects are light, strong, fire-resistant and compostable.


Fascinated by fungi
Van Hook has spent most of her life immersed in the outdoors, starting with childhood summers on an island off the coast of Maine.

“We amused ourselves with nature,” she recalled.

In 1973, after a year of studying French at Middlebury College, she and her husband, the artist George Van Hook, left Maine’s Mount Desert Island in a home-built camper and headed west. Six months later they arrived at the coast of northernmost California.

The next spring, Van Hook audited a botany class at Humboldt State University.
“It was like coming home,” she said.

The instructor encouraged her to take his course on fleshy fungi in the fall. She knew nothing about fungi, but she soon found herself fascinated.

“Fungi have such different forms and shapes compared to anything we know,” Van Hook said. “It’s a whole queendom” -- a word she prefers to kingdom -- “a very overlooked queendom.”
Fungi can be parasites and pathogens of other organisms, but their most important roles in an ecosystem are as decomposers, breaking down complex organic molecules into materials other organisms can use, and as symbionts that foster the growth of trees and other plants.

“They embody a world view I embrace now -- of cooperation, love and compassion,” Van Hook said.

Because it’s mild and moist, the Pacific Northwest has a nine-month growing season for fungi.
“That’s unique, except for the tropics,” Van Hook said. “I happened to land in the right spot.”
Van Hook went on to get her master’s degree in mycology, researching the fungal communities in a Nature Conservancy preserve that she managed for five years. She and her husband went on to Maine, where she worked for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. They moved to Cambridge, and she joined the Skidmore faculty in 1992, teaching plant and population biology.

At some time after that, after reviewing student demand, Skidmore tightened its curriculum and dropped its course in mycology. Van Hook continued to teach other biology courses.

But at an invitation-only dream workshop about a decade later, Van Hook said she received the message that “life is mushrooming.” She resolved to renew her focus on fungi. She went to Washington state twice in 2006 to take courses with Paul Stamets, a leader in the field of applied mycology.

In the summer of 2007, a colleague left a newspaper story about Ecovative on Van Hook’s office door at Skidmore. She followed up and learned that although Bayer and McIntyre had great ideas, their knowledge of fungi was very limited. Van Hook, in contrast, knew which fungi were most likely to be useful and how to propagate them.

“I felt I was being guided to their company,” Van Hook said. “I grew the spawn for their first two years.”


College helps a start-up
William Tomlinson, the director of sponsored research at Skidmore, was instrumental in drawing up a transfer-of-biological-materials agreement between Skidmore and Ecovative.
“Sue had the expertise to find the right spawn and culture it,” Tomlinson recalled. “Skidmore entered into a simple agreement to allow those purified forms to be transferred to Ecovative using our labs. The project was a minimal use of our facilities: an incubator, bench space and an autoclave. It was not high-tech. Ecovative didn’t have the infrastructure in place then to do the work.”

Skidmore also gave Van Hook internal grants to support her research and internships for some of her students.

“Collaborations like this support our faculty and staff and develop new opportunities for our students,” Tomlinson said. He noted that several Skidmore students went on to work at Ecovative, in jobs that might not have existed without Skidmore’s involvement.

“It’s important for the institution to be recognized as a player” in the region, Tomlinson said. “This is outreach to the community and the private sector. Plus, it’s a really cool project. Ecovative uses waste materials that absolutely no one else wants. It deals with important solid waste issues.”

Karen Kellogg, Skidmore’s dean of sustainability and infrastructure, was director of environmental studies at the time.

“We were super-interested for so many reasons,” she said. “This is a truly sustainable business. Ecovative doesn’t waver from its principles. It’s an example of the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. Ecovative is sustainable financially, but it puts the other pieces front and center.
“Sue did some of her initial work on campus and engaged students,” Kellogg went on. “She did great research projects. She knew how to reach out and help all of us understand.”


Academia to business
Van Hook took a six-month sabbatical in 2009 and went to work at Ecovative. Her entire career to that point had been in academia and nonprofit organizations.

The sabbatical “allowed me to be in the business and see if I could do it,” she said.
As her sabbatical was ending, Skidmore announced that it was reducing its faculty and offering early retirement. Van Hook just qualified.

“I felt the universe was supporting me,” she said.

At Ecovative, Van Hook is the chief (and only) mycologist, and she serves as mentor, teacher, trainer and company events organizer. She continues to look for new fungal strains.
“I go into the woods and ask, ‘Is there anyone anywhere around that wants to come play with us?’” she said. “It’s a question of listening.”

As for possible new products, “there’s an endless supply of new applications to go after,” Van Hook said.

Among them are acoustical tiles, marine uses (“our stuff floats,” she said), and replacing bromine-treated foams in automobiles and aircraft.

Ecovative’s eventual goal is to have regional factories all over the world, turning out locally needed products from local wastes and local fungal strains.

Asked whether there is a downside to the company’s work, Van Hook said Ecovative has faced pressure to use genetic modification techniques to create products customers want.
Instead, she said, “we’re using ubiquitous species that are also earth-healing species.”
There’s also the specter of invasive fungi.

But “the stuff we ship is inert,” Van Hook said, explaining that it contains no spores and no living tissue.

Van Hook continues to organize educational programs for the public in her spare time.
“It gets demand up and gets people excited,” she said. “I take immense pleasure in getting people to see something new. Fungi have been on the planet for 1.7 billion years. Their collective intelligence is far greater than we’ll ever, ever approach.”