Eben Bayer is a pioneer of mycelium-based materials. His upstate New York based company Ecovative finds new applications for these fungal root structures, which in the future could change the composition of the things we use. Ecovative turns mycelium into packaging materials, leather alternatives, meat substitutes, and are currently in the process of delving further into construction materials and biofabrication. 

Instead of handling all aspects of production themselves, Ecovative recently announced a transition to a “picks and shovels” approach for its mycelium composites, where the company sells its raw materials to external innovators and industries to explore and develop their own applications for mycelium.

Grow’s Christina Agapakis recently met with Bayer to ask him how he scaled the mycelium company. How does he, after over a decade of running Ecovative, think about the tension between scale and growth, capitalism and sustainability? A raucous but pleasurable conversation ensued.

I wanted to talk to you about scale, biology, business, and the future, because I feel like you always have an interesting point of view on these questions. There’s an argument that we might call the scale wars: that a focus on scale—scalable technologies and businesses—is in conflict with contextual biological growth on a finite planet. Where do you stand on all this?

Eben Bayer: I find the discourse somewhat frustrating. We’re busy playing word games and we have a real situation on Spaceship Earth. So, yeah, I reject the framing. I just don’t think it’s accurate or helpful. Our planet is the most scalable biological system. It’s a nonzero sum. That’s the game we want to play, where we win and build forever. Of course, extracting resources sucks. No matter what we do, we’re going to have an impact. But when we have an impact with biology, it can be nonzero sum —we’re going to build factories and build soil. It’s fundamentally different than every other revolution we’ve had before. And I sure as hell hope it’s scalable. That’s what I’m betting my energy on.

So, if I understand you correctly, you’re suggesting that when we leverage biology as a scaling factor, it introduces a different dynamic compared to traditional growth?

Exactly. I mean, look at human history. We cut down all the forests. We’ve done all these horrible things over time. All these revolutions enabled what capitalism demands, which is compound growth. The digital revolution enabled it again over the past 50 years, this incredible upswing in quality of life and productivity. But even that was extracted from the planet. We’re on the cusp of the first technological revolution that’s compatible with what capitalism and what the environment demands. Capitalism, whether you like it or not, is the only system that works on Spaceship Earth for resource distribution. And it’s going to stay that way unless we’re starting political revolutions, which doesn’t seem to be what we’re doing. Instead, we’re trying to solve this with technology. When we deploy biology as a fundamental component of this system, we are actually inverting the flywheel that everyone ascribes to capitalism.

Has this always been your view?

I actually used to be a fervent de-growther, but eventually I came around to become a capitalist using biology to save planet Earth. I think my mind changed somewhere during the first seven year cycle of Ecovative, where I brought really brilliant people together to do a really hard thing, which was eliminating Styrofoam. We succeeded, technically. And the market basically rejected us. We were really, really close. But we couldn’t quite be cheaper and better and faster. Something didn’t quite work there.

Like all new technologies, our first mushroom sucked. It was crumbly and not very good. I was getting to a point where I realized we could do better. We could win and stay in the arena. What does that mean, though? And is that actually bad? That was a multi-year transition for me. I spent a lot of time on the other side of this thinking, talking to conferences like “you just got to buy less stuff” and “we can only solve this problem by making less shit, building fewer houses,” you know? Now I think we can do better than that. We’re thinking apes, we can think our way out of anything, without attacking all the things that got us here.

You’re saying that using biology as a scaling factor actually changes the whole equation pretty profoundly. What does that look like, for this system, all these businesses, to be built on a biological system?

Capitalism just means: better product, cheaper price, delight your customer. They don’t care how you do it. There’s this whole history of substituting materials throughout human history. My argument is: usually we have capitalism with some new technology that does something cool and new, but has some new externality or builds on existing externalities. Biological technologies — whether you look at using mycelium and leather or food, or you look at single celled organisms, creating new compounds, fragrances, drugs— are the first technologies where you’re getting a new biological flywheel.

These factories are different. My factory produces clean soil. It produces clean water, and it produces food, and it takes in low value carbon sources. That’s just a fundamentally different factory. It has an impact, of course. We’re taking in energy, we’re giving off heat, but they fit in the ecology. Capitalism doesn’t care if you kill a pig or build a mushroom, but it prefers the approach that makes more money. And so, it’s like, “sweet, let’s grow the heck out of it!”

What do you mean when you say capitalism?

Capitalism is a system of resource distribution. Everything we hate about it is mostly a reflection of us. Capitalism doesn’t care whether you were filled at breakfast because a pig was murdered in California, whether it’s in a slightly bigger cage, or because I grew mushroom bacon in upstate New York. Now we have a technology that uniquely allows you to satisfy capitalism’s demand for profits and compound growth, satisfies the consumer’s demand for a delightful experience, and for the first time it can be done in an ecological way. The whole thing fits.

You keep using this phrase, Spaceship Earth, made famous by Buckminster Fuller. What do you mean when you say Spaceship Earth?

It encourages us to zoom out and recognize that we inhabit a vast, self-repairing ecosystem within our gigantic spaceship traveling with our sun through the universe. What I appreciate about this idea is the intentionality it brings. We’re the co-pilots. We’re 75% of the way through our life here on Spaceship Earth. And so, I just love that framing. It says: let’s apply biology to live with grace and honor. Let’s not have fewer people; let’s make this work. The phrase reinstills agency in people.

So, capitalism is like a natural force, but it’s also hackable. People have agency to wield that force. How do we do it?

It reminds me of Steve Jobs’ famous goal to “put a dent in the universe.” Jobs was someone who realized that he had almost infinite agency. How did he do that? I think the answer is we can all do that. We can influence our planet and even hack the systems we live in, including capitalism. The key question is how we want to use our agency. I hear a lot of people talk about attacking the system, attacking it from the bottom because they don’t like what’s coming out at the top. I choose to focus on areas where I can make the most significant impact. So, I am going to play the game, which is capitalism, and instead of fighting it, I aim to win it — for the benefit of people, animals, our environment, and our planet. I encourage others not to waste their efforts on unwinnable battles, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Instead, we should focus on what’s achievable and worthwhile.

We’re on the cusp of the first technological revolution that’s compatible with what capitalism and what the environment demands.

This reminds me of something else: this tendency among scientists — particularly ones on the left side of politics — to not participate in processes they don’t like, or where they don’t like the outcome, such as marketing or politics, even if those have proven very effective. The trouble is if you don’t tell your story, you’re inviting others to tell it for you.

Yeah, for scientists and engineers, storytelling is still a massive weakness.

Why are scientists still so bad at this?

I have a background in both science and the humanities, and it’s not always easy to bridge the two sides. Depending on which “hat” I’m wearing, I see the world differently. With my “engineer hat” on, my perspective is visual and focuses on the complex interconnections of things. When I switch to my “word hat,” it’s more about linear thinking, like predicting the next word in a sentence. This approach helps convey clear, sequential ideas, particularly for describing the progression of thoughts over time. On the other hand, the “storytelling hat” simplifies things with a protagonist, a hero’s journey, and a dragon to defeat. While an engineer might argue for accuracy, saying it wasn’t a dragon but a boiler, the story lens offers a different, more straightforward perspective. They’re such different lenses.

I’d love to discuss the lessons you’ve learned from scaling Ecovative into a company that employs so many people. Scaling a company is a journey that involves more than just your vision and agency; it’s about harnessing the collective agency of your team. Coordinating the efforts of many individuals towards a common goal is a significant part of this process. Can you share your experiences and insights from this journey and how it relates to the idea of agency within a company, which is something I’m also interested in for Ginkgo?

Our first value is agency. You’re in charge of yourself. That means sharing agency throughout the organization, making sure people understand it, and giving them as much latitude as possible to run. It works wonderfully for us, but requires a huge amount of coordination and can also be pretty stressful for people, because agency comes with high accountability. Other organizations do the opposite: they drive high accountability with low agency, which burns people out and makes you go insane. That’s just an intellectual torture chamber. The other thing we stress is this idea of sharing. Are you stressed? What can we do to help you as a team? We’re a team working together for our mission against all the barriers. You have to be honest about stuff to actually give people agency.

What’s an example of that?

I am in the middle of scaling three factories in three countries, and it’s horrible. Let’s consider a practical situation that occurs more often than I’d like. We’ve built new factories with alarm systems, and when a sump pump alarm goes off at 3:00 am because a factory is flooding, I receive a notification, and so does someone else. By the time I log into Slack, the engineer responsible for designing the system, who’s located 40 miles away, has already messaged that they’re getting in their car to fix the issue. No one needed to instruct them; no manager called them to say we’ll miss our quarterly numbers if they don’t fix it. It simply happens. These individuals aren’t maintenance technicians, and it’s not their job to be on call, but they take it upon themselves to address the problem when it arises. That’s an example of a high degree of agency and accountability.

How do you get to that point? What advice do you have for someone trying to scale their biological company?

I’ve been reading about Arnold Schwarzenegger, which might seem strange, but I’m a bit of an information junkie and I read everything. One thing Schwarzenegger talks about is how he loved post-workout pain. He’s addicted to that feeling, and that made him the greatest bodybuilder of all time because he found this horrible excruciating activity, lifting weights in the woods all day, very enjoyable. That unfortunately is the lesson I have about scaling. You wouldn’t believe the pain you experience as a business in biology. But if you learn to love it, you can have a hell of a lot of fun. We have it a lot harder than our friends in the digital space.

Working for a startup requires masochism?

Yeah, you can’t get the highs without the lows, right? It’s all about contrast.

You wouldn’t believe the pain you experience as a business in biology. But if you learn to love it, you can have a hell of a lot of fun. We have it a lot harder than our friends in the digital space.

At Ginkgo, we were very intentional and self-aware when adopting strategies that considered both how digital companies scaled and how traditional physical companies have scaled historically. Were there specific practices you consciously borrowed when considering scaling? What aspects might you handle differently due to the nature of biology, and what lessons can you get from those fields?

I read a lot of history, which rhymes a lot more than people appreciate. I read about the 1800s, when it was about building railroads, and steel plants and canals. But I also read a lot about the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, a lot of hard tech innovation. I’ve deeply studied the history of Polaroid Corporation, which is very IP based. They were so ahead of their time, just suddenly creating these instant photos.

I actually did borrow a fair amount from Ginkgo in the early stages of our company. And that led to our creation of this mycelium foundry and understanding for high throughput science was necessary to do what we did. But business-model wise, we were very much more on a vertical integration view, which is much older school. I was looking back to what folks did in the ‘50s, looking at companies like Gore [maker of GoreTex], who created a whole new material, marketing it into very different industries while sending the same fundamental chemical value proposition. Half of my reading was about: how do organizations work? And how do these inventions impact society?

I found your tweet about “picks and shovels” intriguing, particularly in the context of mycelium. It connects with the idea of a “tech tree,” where the creation of a new material can open up various possibilities. It’s a unique metaphor that caught my attention. So, I’m curious about what this new branch looks like for you when considering biological materials. You’ve already mentioned leather, but could you elaborate on what this space looks like as you introduce a novel material that has the potential to disrupt multiple industries?

On the tech tree side, our innovations have generated multiple fundamental tech branches within mycelium science. We started with mycelium composites, which are like a biological version of concrete, mixing mycelium and particles to create packaging and other high-volume, low-value applications. Over the last decade, we’ve expanded into higher-value areas with products in the whole cut muscle meat space, like MyBacon, and apparel, with Forager. These materials can be compared to GoreTex in terms of versatility. For instance, our high-quality leather material can also perform as a filter or in cushioning foam for shoes, allowing us to market the same product in three different ways.

What I meant by picks and shovels is that our focus is on making the living raw material, mycelium, readily available at a low cost and high quality globally. Our goal is to blow open the IP field in mycelium composites. Our goal is to see what others build with this accessible raw material for mycelium composites. We’ve noticed unforeseen opportunities like Loop’s success with compostable coffins in the Netherlands, tapping into Death Care, which is a huge industry. All they need is a quality, low-cost source of raw materials. People are receptive to such environmentally friendly options when they have a reliable, cost-effective source. We’ve shifted our approach from trying to pick winners after 15 years of patent holding and licensing to inviting innovation and problem-solving through this “inverted” strategy in mycelium composites. So that’s where we’re starting, and it lets us focus 100% of our future technology into our next generation, AirMycelium. 

How did that inversion happen?

When I founded Ecovative we were 100% focused on a self-supporting composite comprised of mycelium and particles to service high volume low margin markets, like packaging, and insulation.. It was novel and mission that allowed us to raise capital for this whole mycelium platform, we found early product market fit on packaging. We had a value proposition, and a vision to grow many products with this platform, but a decade later while it enjoyed some commercial success, it hadn’t been adopted at what I would consider a global scale. 

That was a great time to say: hey -we raised capital, refined the platform; we figured out how to optimize and lower the cost of packaging, insulation, and other composite applications. And we also created a whole new other platform, AirMycelium, along the way. This was no longer a nascent technology, a weird idea growing under my bed.  Now, there’s universities that have research programs around mycelium composites. So we thought, let’s get out of the way and just sell picks and shovels and see what other people can do in that space, and put all our efforts into what’s next- AirMycelium 

Is that a different way of vertically integrating?

Everything we do is temporal, right? We’re in a long 30-year journey, and you have to be certain things at certain times to achieve it. Our composite business was about vertically integrating. I used to have my own raw material plants. I would buy corn stover out of the fields, convert them into raw materials, build them into packaging parts, and sell them. I still have some packaging sites, but essentially, we’re making raw materials and those raw materials can go to a coffin builder or packaging. If we make as many raw materials as possible, that keeps driving down the cost, right? Those applications get better. So now, we can just focus on selling a raw material, and de-integrate.

For Food and Apparel, in our newest plant, we did it again. Vertically integrated – I built this raw material plant, a farm, a bacon processing site, all together, and we have a marketing, brand and a sales team, we just launched into whole foods and will be going into national distribution this year. That is vertical integration to the max. And I do it because I’m obsessed with control. I want to succeed or die on my own terms. And I’ve gotten in trouble in the past by outsourcing something in the chain.

But as soon as it works, I’m chopping off anything that we’re not good at, because the moment has moved. We are already seeing that success in AirMycelium with farms in Canada and the Netherlands starting to independently grow our crops. 

I started thinking about that almost as a designer — as a prototyping exercise. You have to show the art of the possible.

Prototypes are my love language. The crappier, the better, you know. In 2019, I flew out to meet with the CTO of Impossible Foods and the CEO of Beyond Meat and told them that I could transform mycelium into leather. Muscle meats dominate 80% of the market, and they were focused on ground burgers. I asked Ethan [of Beyond] , “the whole cut market is bigger, and more valuable. Why ground meat?” They couldn’t do it. They couldn’t get the texture, size, shape, experience. Our insight was to look at gourmet mushrooms. I said, “they have all the tissues and textures of meat! The economics are great. Why don’t we work together? I’m going to make this raw material into food, and you can commercialize it.” They couldn’t see it. 

Because I was there with this thing I couldn’t eat. It’s a leather sample and it looked like crap. It looked like a nice steak to me, but everyone around me saw the crumbly dried mushroom block in my hand. That’s when I decided, “Fuck, we gotta make bacon.”  The next year, in December 2019 I showed that bacon on stage at biofabricate. People can see it. Then they can believe. Then we ship it -that took some time-. Then they eat it. Now the big corporations get it. Show and tell with capitalism. 

How do you decide when to focus on reinvention and when to focus on substitution?

When we started MyForest Foods, we had to decide whether to create something entirely new or substitute a familiar product. 

We picked substitution. Humans have had their “bacon need” filled with different substrates over hundreds of years. It’s a desire to eat hearty, delicious, whole cuts of biological flesh. We are still filling that need. 

It’s like reinventing the wheel versus changing the coating. The former represents true disruption, like the iPhone, which fundamentally changes the world. As designers, we often engage in substitution, modifying existing concepts. Most of what we do revolves around making small changes in materials or coatings, like transitioning from cow-based meat to mushroom-based meat. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just the reality. Disruptive innovation is rare, and it’s crucial to recognize when we’re primarily focused on substitution. That is what we do as a material science company or a food company. Understanding this distinction has been humbling and helpful in guiding our efforts to improve products for consumers.

I’m remembering an old New Yorker profile with Karl Lagerfeld, which came out when I was in college and preoccupied my whole friend group. He said something like, when you watch old movies, the architecture looks mostly the same, that changes in the order of decades or centuries, cars change in a slightly shorter time-frame, but the way people dress is so different—fashion can change fast. This is an interesting metaphor for how change can happen — certain things can change quickly while others do not or can not. How do you know how much substitution of materials is possible at any given time, and when there’s an opening to change things more fundamentally?

My thesis is that you’ve got to do it to whatever level of capitalism deems necessary. The hurdle rate changes constantly. If you end up somewhere between profitability and cash flow for a business that grows quickly, doesn’t require a lot of capital flow into it, you’ve solved the really great problem for your customer. Then you’ve got a great business. If you can align that with a great cultural moment amazing things happen. 

That’s when I decided, “Fuck, we gotta make bacon.”

That sounds like capitalism’s version of “sustainability.”  

If we want these biological technologies to positively influence the planet, you have to win the game of capitalism. And so yeah, it’s sustainability, but capitalism is making the cash flow. I’m just trying to give people permission to know that with biology you can make more free cash flow than a coal plant. And you can pump out compost at the same time; what’s wrong with that? That just sounds good to me. If you’re worried that humans have an impact on Earth, a very different philosophical discussion. We have to deal with that separately. This is the hack that gives us another 250 years to talk about it.

How do you see all of this scaling in the next 10-30 years?

I will say I’m probably less optimistic than you’d like. In 10 years, I want to see some of the pragmatic stuff that’s in the wings actually get implemented. It’s things like fermented products, like mycelium — it’s probably in food, it’s probably in materials. It’s mostly substitution. If those things make up like 10% of global raw material flows in 10 years, that would be awesome. In 20 years, I could see them becoming a dominant part of the industrial economy, where it’s half of what’s in our homes, our clothing, our vehicles. That’s when we can start to mainline synthetic biology into the environment, like when you start making living things do weird new things. Trees grow medicine and walls that sense if your air quality is poor and release compounds into the air to balance it out. I think that’s more of a 30 to 50 year timeframe. I think that’s pragmatic. Look, I’m very aware that I’m gonna be dead soon. We don’t get much time here. And I really like humans. And I’d love for us to continue in perpetuity.