- Ecovative, a startup that made a name for itself with its sustainable packing and building materials made from mushrooms, is planning a pivot into lab-grown meat.
- The company wants its mushroom scaffolding to be a central material for startups aiming to create real meat from labs without the need for slaughter.
- The material could have uses for plant-based "meat" companies like the Bill Gates-backed bleeding veggie burger startup Impossible Foods, too.
A startup that makes environmentally-friendly packaging for IKEA is planning a big transition into lab-grown meat.
Ecovative— which made a name for itself by inking deals with brands like IKEA and Dell to swap styrofoam containers for packaging grown from fungi— now wants to use its mushroom-growing capabilities to become the backbone of the effort to make meat without slaughter.
It might sound like an odd pivot. But a critical obstacle for the "cell-based" (or "clean") meat industry is taking the raw materials for meat — lab-grown cells from the fat and muscle tissues of chickens, pigs, and cows — and crafting them into materials that mimic the complex structure and texture of a marbled steak or sinewy chicken breast.
Several startups in the space claim to have succeeded in making prototype products that take the form of sausages, burgers, and meatballs. But these products involve essentially smashing together a mix of muscle and fat tissues — not creating actual pieces of flesh that mirror the real thing. What could be missing is a good scaffold, a delicate structure on which the cells can thrive.
Ecovative wants its mushroom technology to be that scaffold. The company's existing structures — boxes, walls, light fixtures and even a leather-like fabric called Mylo— are made from mushroom roots (or mycelium) mixed with discarded farm materials like corn stalks. Ecovative has recently been experimenting with growing animal cells on materials made from similar ingredients.
"The key thing mycelium does is go from a single-celled organism to a 3D structure in space," Eben Bayer, Ecovative's co-founder and CEO, told Business Insider. "We've been growing animal cells on it and they've been growing really well."
If it works, the partnership could help usher in the first slaughter-free products with the texture and structure of steaks and fillets.
The mushroom's unique structure is hard to find elsewhere in the vegetarian-friendly organism kingdom. Plants can only do so much. But fungi knows no such boundaries.
"If you look at plant scaffolding, you're limited to the geometry of something like a spinach leaf," Bayer said. "With mycelium, we can make a sheet that's many feet long and however thick. We can control the density. It's this massive scaffold you can grow relatively inexpensively."
Ecovative's mushroom-powered structure could have uses beyond the cell-based meat space as well. In the plant-based food arena, for example, mycelium could be used as the foundation for new, even meatier versions of already popular vegetarian items like the Bill Gates-backed "bleeding" Impossible Burger or the Beyond Burger.
Those companies could essentially "use our scaffolding and infuse it with their ingredients and flavorings," Bayer said.
Several other startups aiming to replace animal products with vegetarian options have turned to fungi for its preferential texture and naturally neutral flavor.
Wild Earth, a startup making vegan dog treats, uses koji — the fungi that gives soy sauce and miso soup their umami kick — in its products. Similarly, startup Terramino Foods is exploring using koji as the central ingredient for its "salmon" burgers.
For now, Ecovative isn't sure which path in the sustainable food arena — whether it's cell-based meat or plant-based meat alternatives — the company will end up pursuing the most heavily. The company's overarching goal is to make its mycelium design platform available to everyone.
Regardless, Bayer said he sees a place for his company at the food-of-the-future table.
"This is the next natural step in this evolution to use natural products to make things," Bayer said. "As the biology advances and the tech advances alongside it, you're going to see more people building on this platform."