Company Worth Watching: An Interview with Gavin McIntyre of Ecovative Design
by Greta Altmeyer
It’s often said that it’s important to work smarter, not harder. Ecovative Design, a company we have had the pleasure of working with, is doing both. The company has developed a sustainable alternative to conventional plastics, resins and foams in packaging.
Founded in 2007 in Green Island, NY, Ecovative Design is a long-standing alumnus of Larta’s commercialization programs having gone first through our U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) basic and extended programs (USDA-CAP1 and USDA CATP) and twice through our National Science Foundation Program (NSF-CAP1).
Ecovative has pioneered an industry of high-performance, environmentally-friendly materials that are grown from mycelium. These alternatives to synthetics have wide applications as packing and building materials as well as mycelium leather. With Ecovative, the possibilities are endless through a bio-fabrication process that creates better products, better profit margins, and a cleaner world, all using the basic biology of mushrooms.
Ecovative’s rapid success over the past decade is further elaboration of the notion that embracing social good does not and should not compromise product quality. In fact, the materials first produced by Ecovative were mechanically strong, flame retardant, and biodegradable, further proving that being inspired by nature often makes for great engineering. Despite its position as a young company in a new industry, Ecovative began attracting large clients, including Dell Computers and Puma, both of whom were interested in reducing costs and waste.
Entrepreneurship is a game of chess, where “it’s really important…that you can stay nimble…and that you can respond to the market.” According to Gavin McIntyre, a co-founder of Ecovative, commercialization requires adjustment, strategizing, and re-strategizing to ensure that Ecovative’s technology exists to respond to an unmet industry need. While many entrepreneurs struggle with the “transition from the lab bench to the market,” McIntyre and his co-founder Eben Bayer have learned to think outside of the bubble and diversify their mycofoam technology to disrupt a variety of industries. According to McIntyre, “because [Ecovative] is small, it’s important focus on [demonstrating in] one market at a time.” One of their most recent high-profile partnerships has been providing mycelium leather to Bolt Threads, a clothing company based in San Francisco.
This partnership is one of many industry-specific market demonstrations of Ecovative’s trademark technology’s success. Diversification of applications has allowed Ecovative to act as a mentor and pioneer in the industry, setting an example for other companies seeking to displace plastics and other non-renewable commodities. Disruption of synthetics industries cannot be achieved alone, and according McIntyre, Ecovative has focused heavily on “[licensing technologies] to extend global reach of materials.” Currently, the company holds international licenses in the Netherlands and Israel, and hopes to extend this reach further.
McIntyre advises new startups to recognize that “it’s important not just to get money, but to get smart money that’s well-aligned with your technology.” Industry-specific mentors have played a large role in Ecovative’s success, with one of their earliest mentors and current advisory board members being Jerry Weinstein, the founder of Owens Corning, a polystyrene company whose product Ecovative has displaced. Industry-specific mentorship plays a critical role in commercialization, and according to McIntyre, many entrepreneurs fall into the trap of designing their product within a bubble. These entrepreneurs remain “stuck in the lab,” waiting to push out product past the point of no return, rather than seeking out early feedback. In our programs, Larta paired Ecovative with one of our Principal Advisors, industry specialist John Tao, whose expertise lays in the wood composites industry, a market which Ecovative has strategically entered.
Since its start, Ecovative has learned, as many start-ups do, the challenge of identifying the correct industry niche to explore. Ecovative has remained nimble and open to change, evolving with a variety of industries through a “holistic approach to solve a unique need.” Ecovative has found its voice, found its vision, and most importantly, found its value in using low value components to create a high value product through natural processes.