Harnessing nature’s intelligence
By: Bénine Buijze
It was an internet search that set Jan Berbee on his path to becoming a biobased entrepreneur. While working as an advisor in sustainable packaging, a client asked Berbee if he could find an alternative for the plastic punnet in which mushrooms are sold in the supermarket. He typed in ‘mushroom packaging’ in the search engine and to his surprise, instead of packaging for mushrooms, he found packaging made from mushrooms. Berbee’s curiosity was triggered. In 2015, together with his business partner Arthur Moree, he started the company Grown.bio, a biotechnology company that uses mycelium to grow sustainable and compostable protective packaging, building materials and interior design items.
Could you quickly explain what mycelium is?
“Of course. Mycelium is the name for the root network of mushrooms. To really understand it, I think I better explain the entire lifecycle of a mushroom. When you sketch a mushroom, you’ll probably draw a stem and a cap. Underneath the cap there are spores. When the mushroom must reproduce, it will let go of these spores. They are taken by the wind and land on soil in the forest for example. When they touch the ground, the spores become active and create a network of white roots. Like a big plate of spaghetti, but underground. That’s mycelium. It is quite strong and grows fast. When the mycelium has been growing underground for a while, new mushrooms will pop out of the ground. And the cycle will start again.”
“People will ask me: ‘Will mushrooms grow out of this?’ No, there won’t be growing mushrooms out of our products.”
And how does Grown.bio use mycelium for its products?
“In nature, the mycelium lives, breathes and grows. It does so by finding nutrients in the soil. In our factory, we try to replicate this process. We use waste fibres or hemp as a nutrient and mix the mycelium with it. The mycelium feeds itself and grows, binding all the fibres together. This can happen randomly, but if you make a mold, it will take the shape of that mold. By doing so, we can make things in certain shapes. When it has grown into the shape we want, we bake it off in an oven to kill the mycelium and then you have a very strong product.”
Do you have to add anything else before you bake it off or is it just these natural products that you use?
“No, it’s just the fibres and the mycelium. By baking it, we dehydrate the product and the mycelium will die. Sometimes people ask me: ‘Will mushrooms grow out of this?’ No. There won’t be growing mushrooms out of our products. We bake it at 80 degrees Celsius and besides dehydrating it, this also kills the mycelium.”
That sounds really promising. So, it’s a strong product. What other properties does it have?
“It’s hydrophobic. When it gets wet, water will roll off it. If you make a closed container from our products, it is insulating as well. So, you can keep a beverage in it hot or cold for a long time. The mycelium we make is also fire retardant, which makes it an interesting product for the building industry. You can insulate your house with mycelium panels. I always make this joke: have you ever tried setting a mushroom on fire? I’m pretty sure people have never tried, but if they did, it wouldn’t burn. The hemp in our panels would smoulder and ash away. Eventually, it would be destroyed by a fire, but really slowly. It’s a good retardant and that’s what we need in buildings.”
What can mycelium change in the construction industry?
“I think we’re in a stage in which we are moving closer towards biobased building. It’s too early to say that mycelium is the solution, but it is absolutely a top five player within the solutions that exist. The most logical next step for mycelium products in the building industry is insulation. And we see that already, because we’re making insulation panels and selling them to contractors. But we’re still competing with polyurethane. It has better insulation properties, so if we want to achieve the same results, our panels have to be thicker. Luckily, companies often give mycelium a chance and say: ‘it’s okay to make it 30% bigger if it gives the same insulation value.’ In that regard, I see a shift within the building industry.”
“We’re doing irreparable damage to the earth by using oil-based products. We can never make that right again”
So, in construction, mycelium is a good substitute for polyurethane. But Grown.bio also makes packaging products. For what material is mycelium a good alternative in packaging?
“It’s a really good substitute for polystyrene, which is incredibly polluting. First of all, it’s made of oil. Drilling oil is taking away something from our earth that has been there for millions of years. We’re doing irreparable damage to nature by using oil-based products. We can never make that right again. Then, to make polystyrene, you have to expand it with Pentane gas, an aggressive and toxic material. And then, you have to ship that very light material over long distances, because polystyrene is made close to where oil is drilled. And that’s not close to Europe. Shipping it here has an enormous impact on CO2-emissions. If you compare polystyrene to our packaging, it’s equally strong. But mycelium can be locally made from products that quickly regrow – unlike oil – and you can compost our products in your own garden.”
It seems to be a great advantage that you can grow mycelium anywhere and don’t rely on an oil field far away.
“Yes, that’s true. We sell GIY-kits (Grow It Yourself) to individual people: hobbyists, designers, architects. It’s a kit with the same materials we use in our factory. People make beautiful things. We see people growing helmets, wall panels or artistic sculptures. And they can just bake it off in their own oven. People experiment with it as well: what happens when I put coffee or spinach in between the substrate? Will it turn brown or green? It’s fun to see.”
Grown.bio exists almost seven years now. Have you seen a shift in the way clients look at sustainability or is it a slow process?
“It’s a slow process, but I have seen some changes overtime. Simply because more people come knocking on our door to help them with sustainable alternatives for packaging and building. Another indicator is the discussion about the price. Our company is in between a start-up and a scale-up, so the fact that we are smaller, makes us a bit more expensive than established factories. In the beginning we didn’t get all the clients we wanted on board, because they wanted a more sustainable product for the same price as plastic or polystyrene. And that is simply not possible. Nowadays, these discussions don’t happen as much anymore. Clients often say: ‘I don’t mind that it’s more expensive. I just want to contribute to sustainability anyway I can.’ And that gives me hope for a better future.”
Curious about Jan's whole story? Jan Berbee (Grown.bio) on biobased producing