- Written by Suzanne Byrne
- Business reporter
There’s no doubt that mushrooms are having a moment.
From the popular Netflix documentary Fantastic Fungi, to increasing medical trials exploring the use of a compound found in hallucinogenic species as a treatment for depression, the mushroom boom is alive and kicking.
But there is one part of the fungus that companies are now particularly exploiting, and that is the mycelium, which is the root structure of the fungus.
London-based biomanufacturing company Biohm grows fungi on a large scale by feeding them like food waste and sawdust to create building industry products such as sandwich panels. These can then be used as a replacement for the mainstream plastic.
“We are focused on solving global challenges, and one of the biggest in terms of impact on the planet and the ecosystem is the construction industry,” explains Oksana Bondar, Design Director at Biohm.
“We dug deeper into waste streams, types of materials, and building fabrics, and one of the biggest commodities was insulation. The idea was to tackle a challenge with a natural solution.”
Once the fungi have grown over several weeks, Biohm harvests and dries them, then presses them into brick-like slabs.
“The nice thing about this product is that the boards can be recycled, they can be broken down into feed stock, it’s safe to compost, they’re pH-neutral and 100% natural. And they can fertilize the soil,” says Bondar.
A spokeswoman for Bayom said the company is “currently negotiating… with major multinational companies” to transfer its products to global markets. “Expect that mycelium thermal insulation will be installed in homes, offices and public spaces in the UK and Europe within the next two years.”
In San Francisco, a company called MycoWorks is cultivating fungi to produce a skin substitute called “Reishi.” With this material, she now makes everything from hats to purses, handbags, and bowls.
“Mushroom grown reishi is an incredible material, and the first of its kind [leather replacement] “It doesn’t use plastic as a primary ingredient,” says Sophia Wang, co-founder of MycoWorks.
“It is grown using three organic materials – water, sawdust and mycelium, which keeps carbon emissions low.”
She adds that the luxury goods sector is currently showing the most interest in the company’s work. MycoWorks has already assisted Hermes with production a handbag made partly from her fungus, and formed a collaboration with milliner Nick Fouquet.
MycoWorks is also working with General Motors to explore the use of fungi in car interiors.
Wang says the company “coaxes” the fungus into growing into a large brick. The top layer of this, which is said to look like a sheet of animal skin, is then peeled off, and may be tanned or colored in the same way as leather.
Wang says the cost of reishi is currently comparable to premium leather. However, she hopes that as the company introduces production on a much larger scale, the price will come down.
To achieve this growth, the company has raised $125m (£104m) to fund the construction of a new facility that will allow it to ramp up production from thousands of panels a year to millions. It is scheduled to open in South Carolina later this year.
While it is difficult to obtain figures for the financial value of the mushroom sector, its rapid growth undoubtedly fuels the growth of the broader global mushroom market. This is set to reach $90.4 billion by 2028, up from $63 billion in 2022, According to the research firm Imarc Group.
“I think the reason for the growing interest in fungi for materials science applications is simply an increase in awareness,” says Dr. Mitchell Jones, a researcher at the Vienna University of Technology, an expert on mycelium.
“When I started my PhD on the topic about seven years ago, nobody knew about it. There has been almost no documented research on fungus-based materials, and there are only two companies in the US that are doing things with them.
“The topic is becoming more and more popular these days. Companies are popping up everywhere including the US, UK, Italy, Holland, Indonesia, South Korea, Estonia and Australia. The more media gets into the topic, the more people want to get into it commercially and the more startups there are. The attraction is The “weirdness” of the concept, for lack of a better term.
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For Dr. Jones, mycelium’s rugged and sustainable reputation makes it an attractive material. For starters, they’re usually made using agricultural or forestry by-products, or food waste that would otherwise have been incinerated or thrown away in a landfill.
He adds that unlike most manufacturing processes — which may be energy-intensive and require machinery — the fungus, which is a living organism, does the hard work for you, simply by growing.
But are there any downsides to using fungi? They must be effectively sealed with a water-repellent material, warns Dr. Jones, “because if you don’t they are more sponge-like compared to other materials, and are prone to absorbing large amounts of water.”
He adds that we do not yet know how long this will continue. “Because it has not yet been produced on a commercial scale, we don’t have accurate life assessment data.”
Berlin-based Bosque Foods has raised $3 million to develop mycelium-based alternatives to chicken, pork and bacon.
They grow their fungi “within days” in fermentation vats that allow for both indoor and urban cultivation, says Isabella Iglesias-Musaccio, co-founder and CEO of the company.
“From our point of view, this is beneficial because we are able to increase our production in a more cost-effective way, which means we can reach price parity with animal meat sooner,” she says.
Bosque mushrooms are said to have a mild flavor, with just a hint of “umami,” or savory notes. To this he adds a bunch of spices.
The situation in the United Kingdom was complicated by Brexit, but the British Food Standards Agency Keep the EU authorization rules For the so-called “new foods”. These are food items that were not consumed “significantly” before 1997.
Ms. Iglesias Musaccio insists that fungi are the future of plant food. Some of the issues with plant-based alternatives is that soy and pea protein isolates can have a very strong flavor that many people find by themselves unacceptable.
“Our fungi can act as a blank canvas for us to create delicious flavor profiles that people crave.”
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