“Gavin and I both really wanted to be entrepreneurs. We felt like that was a great way to make an impact in the world. Making the jump was a little scary though. Gavin and I both had jobs lined up. He went to the National Laboratory designing super colliders and I was working on humanitarian de-mining vehicles. I actually quit my job on the first day when I got there to start work on this. Gavin did the same a few weeks later!” -– Eben Bayer, CEO, Ecovative Design
KissMyCountry interviewed Eben Bayer, CEO of Ecovative Design. A green building company that is developing alternatives to synthetic materials. Eben talks about starting the company with his co-founder and Chief Scientist, Gavin McIntyre, goals for the future, and their most recent media hit — a mention on “CSI New York.”
KissMyCountry: Eben, Ecovative Design is coming out with some exciting products. First, tell us about EcoCradle natural packaging – what it is, how it saves the planet and why it’s a breakthrough product.
Bayer: Sure, well let me start with Ecovative as you said. Ecovative is a biomaterials company. Our vision is to replace environmentally damaging synthetics like plastics and foam. We’re focusing initially right now on replacing expanded polystyrene or Styrofoam, which is a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical company. This material is used in everything from building construction to packaging. About $20 billion of this material is used worldwide each year and has some pretty nasty environmental consequences. So our vision is to not only to replace materials like that where they don’t make sense, in places like packaging, but also to generate a whole different class of materials that are home compostable and made from agricultural byproducts.
What’s really unique about EcoCradle is this is a product that for the first time gives you another option instead of polystyrene in the protective packaging space. There really isn’t any other option right now if you want to ship heavier items and have protection. So things like televisions, tables or heavy computers can really only come in this toxic white stuff. If you’re doing lighter products like laptops you can do bamboo packaging or molded paper pulp. But at this weight range and product type Expanded Polystyrene is your only option. So that’s the first thing that makes EcoCradle unique. What makes EcoCradle really unique is the materials used for its production. We source agricultural byproducts from around the United States.
These are really waste products – several. It’s not like starch foam which is made from a food product. We’re actually using things you typically can’t even feed to cattle like cotton gin trash. Then in production we don’t have a lot of big energy consumption because we’re actually growing this material. We take our agricultural waste product whether it’s from rice husks or cotton byproducts. We wet it, basically moisten the material, cook it a little bit to soften it and kill off any other organisms, and then spray it with mushroom cells. And these mushroom cells digest the agricultural waste and form a tight, white, fluffy matrix which binds it together into a composite but also gives it a soft, white, cushiony appearance.
If you do a cradle-to-cradle analysis of our process and compare it to the production of a cubic foot of expanded polystyrene we require only about one tenth the energy overall if you factor in all the energy that goes into an oil refinery or a natural gas refinery. Then the last step which makes our product really exciting is what you do with it.
What do you do with your expanded polystyrene packaging when you get it? Well, you throw it away. So here’s a product whose lifespan is measured in thousands of years. It literally takes thousands of years for this product to break down. Even when it breaks down it’s really just breaking into little chunks. It’s not going away and it’s going to find its way into our ecosystem and eventually into your body. And styrene’s chemical precursors are classified as carcinogenic compounds. With EcoCradle you have a product that totally compostable in your own backyard. It fits right into nature’s recycling system. So you don’t have to put it in an anaerobic digester, you don’t have to do anything special. You can just put it in a compost pile and it will return to the earth. Not surprisingly because it’s basically mushroom roots and seed husks. Nature’s packaging.
KissMyCountry: Now, please tell us about Greensulate insulation – what it is, how it saves the planet and why it’s also a breakthrough product like EcoCradle?
Bayer: For Greensulate it’s essentially very similar in terms of the sourcing materials. We typically use a rice husk which is fire resistant. So it’s a material that’s unlike conventional rigid board insulators. If you put a torch on a foamed plastic building material you get a pretty spectacular flame. If you put a torch on a composite made with rice husks you can actually hold it in your hand. It won’t burn. The production is pretty similar but we don’t make it into molded shapes. We just make it into board stock. We use a slightly different organism actually in this process which is very rot, water and mold resistant. In fact it passes the ASTM mold test. It far outperforms woods like pine. It’s still eventually home compostable but it’s actually very water resistant. It’s more like building a home on a hard wood versus a soft wood.
KissMyCountry: You founded Ecovative Design with Gavin McIntyre, another student at Rensellaer Polytechnic Institute. How did you and Gavin first meet and come to work together? How did it all begin?
Bayer: Gavin and I met basically as Freshmen at Rensselaer. We worked on a bunch of different projects together, some projects that he initiated and some projects that I initiated. Our senior year we both knew we really wanted to start a business and I suggested this to him and our professor, Burt Swersey. Burt was really supportive of us. Gavin said let’s do it and off we went. When we started out we went on the internet and we ordered the mushroom cells and some of the particles for our first composites. In Gavin’s kitchen we mixed them up and we put the first samples under his bed, and some of them came out well enough for testing.
KissMyCountry: What made you decide to form your own company instead of working at a larger company to develop these products? What was the benefit to doing this on your own?
Bayer: First of all we felt that to commercialize this technology we really needed to do it because it’s disruptive. There is no manufacturing system for it, there’s no supply chain, there are no products made out of the material because it didn’t exist until we thought of it. We couldn’t really just license this technology to another company. Gavin and I both really wanted to be entrepreneurs. We felt like that was a great way to make an impact in the world. We’re a triple bottom line company which means we think of people, we think of the planet and we think of profit, and we firmly believe that the best way to make a change in our capitalist world is to come up with solutions that fit into the capitalist system but have other benefits. We’re providing a market for farmers who have crop wastes they can’t use.
Making the jump was a little scary though. Gavin and I both had jobs lined up. He went to the National Laboratory designing Super colliders and I was working on humanitarian de-mining vehicles. I actually quit my job on the first day when I got there to start work on this. Gavin did the same a few weeks later!
KissMyCountry: You and Gavin are young entrepreneurs, but both of you finished your degrees before starting Ecovative Design. Many young entrepreneurs don’t even feel the need to complete college when they have a great idea to develop. What value did you place on your education and finishing your degrees versus developing your ideas?
Bayer: We were both very serious about completing our degrees. We got dual degrees, one in Mechanical Engineering and one in Product Design & Innovation, which is kind of like an Entrepreneurship program. So in that sense finishing our degree was really supportive to starting the business. Essentially our last year of college we were launching this business as students. For us our degrees fit perfectly. I have to say going to Rensselear was an incredible experience. Not because it was a lot of fun, it was a lot of work. It helped me to develop an incredible work ethic. So I’m really thankful I completed my education. It’s a great school.
KissMyCountry: Thinking back over the past few years, what’s something that you learned about starting your own company that you didn’t know or realize going in?
Bayer: I think the general complexity of actual business organization. That was unexpected for us, even though we knew it was there. We were both trained as Mechanical Engineers. We understand and gravitate towards physical worlds and systems based on complexity like you find in an aircraft. The actual nuances of all the pieces that make a business work were really a little overwhelming.
We were fortunate to work with great partners like the National Collegiate Innovators and Inventors Alliance which trained us. They actually gave us a five-day crash course cover such topics as: How do you run a business?; What’s your board of advisors look like?; What’s an operating agreement?; and What’s a P and L statement? All these are key components to running a business that as an engineer you’re not aware of.
KissMyCountry: You’ve been great at getting noticed in some unusual ways. Ecovative Design was featured on Planet Green’s Invention Nation last year, and Greensulate was featured recently on CSI NY. That’s not only exciting but really funny — you have to tell us about “CSI NY.” How did that happen, and how was Greensulate included in the episode?
Bayer: I’ll tell you we actually do very little media outreach.
I got a call one day from a set designer who said, “I’m trying to make this material; it’s in the script and I can’t figure out how to make it.” I said, well tell me about it. He said, “It’s Greensulate.” And I said, “There’s no way you’re going to be able to make it, trust me, but I can send you some. What are you doing this for?” They told me they were doing this show, and I asked if I could see the script and it was a very positive reflection of what our material does. I said great, we’ll provide you with all the panels you need. We ended up sending them a number of large panels, and in the end they only had a little piece that made it on the air. Obviously we were so thrilled to be included in a great show.
We got a huge response from that. We had people calling in from all over the country who wanted the material and wanted to put it in their homes.
KissMyCountry: What’s next for Ecovative Design? What do you want to make happen over the next few years?
Bayer: Our vision is to become a leader in sustainable materials, just like a Dow or a DuPont was a leader in synthetic materials over the last 100 years. We’ve invented a product that’s somewhere between Expanded Polystrene and wood in terms of how it performs and fits into the environment. Our mandate is to keep expanding that platform and making other products and also extending the the platform to do other new things.
Making replacements for the hard types of plastics you see in your laptop is a long term goal but I think next you should look forward to consumer products that are made out of the same type of material as EcoCradle next. We have made some fun prototypes here this spring: Door stops, composters, frisbees, flower pots, and other things for the home.
KissMyCountry: Which are your favorite places to live or travel? What places do you love?
Bayer: Well, I have to say I enjoy traveling, which is fortunate considering my job here, because I end up doing a lot of traveling. But the place I love the most is Vermont. Central Vermont I think is the most beautiful part of the world ever. I love Southeast Asia and Europe, particularly the Netherlands, partially because I have a lot of Dutch friends and supporters, but it’s also just an incredibly cool country.
I love traveling in the United States as well. Vermont in the summer – I couldn’t ask to be anywhere else. Go to central Vermont and swim in the White River at Panes Beach. Around the United States, Boulder, Colorado is enjoyable too. I just had the opportunity to go down to Lubbock, Texas, which was not a place I thought I’d like but it’s actually gorgeous down there and I love how open it is.
KissMyCountry: When you really want to get away from it all what do you most like to do?
Bayer: I like to tinker. If I can go to Vermont and do it, that’s good. If I’m sitting in my house and I’m making a little project that’s when I’m most relaxed.
KissMyCountry: Green Island, New York, where Ecovative Design is located, is near Albany. What places do you enjoy in the area? What would you recommend to someone who is visiting or driving through?
Bayer: For an eatery I would have to recommend Browns Brewery, which we frequent a lot. That’s just over the river in Troy. And in terms of activities the Mohawk Hudson bike trail runs right along the river. You can bike all the way to Albany on it. It’s really a gorgeous thing to bike on. You can walk on it and you can see the river and you get to see both towns.
KissMyCountry: We’d like to stay in touch and come back to you at a future point in time to see what’s new with Ecovative.
Article appearing courtesy KissMyCountry.
photo: Ecovative Design