Small Business Innovative Research

Sister Blog: Small Business Innovation is Mushrooming

EPA Connect, the official blog of EPA’s leadership, recently shared a post featuring Ecovative, one of our favorite success stories!

Small Business Innovation is Mushrooming

By Judith Enck

Sometimes I worry that one of the enduring manmade wonders of our time will be the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You know the Garbage Patch – the huge concentration of marine debris (mostly plastics) floating in the Pacific Ocean. It may still be there centuries from now. I wonder if a thousand years from now, tourists will visit the Garbage Patch the way we do the Roman Coliseum or the Pyramids. They’ll take pictures and stand there with their mouths agape wondering “how could they let this happen?”

Personally, I’m hopeful we can reduce the “greatness” of the garbage patch – and solve many of our other waste disposal problems – by reducing packaging or at least making it more sustainable.

Wine packaging

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Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Sister Blog: Innovating our Way to a Cleaner Future

This post was originally published on our sister blog, EPA Connect

By Bob Perciasepe

The history of environmental protection in the United States is a history of innovation. From catalytic converters to advanced batteries, technological innovations have helped us protect our health and environment by reducing pollution.

bob p blog

One company receiving SBIR funding is developing an efficient and low-cost manufacturing method to recycle rare earth-based magnets from industrial scrap.

With that history in mind, today EPA announced more than $2 million in contracts to seven small businesses to develop sustainable technologies that can help protect our environment. EPA’s funding will support technologies ranging from an E-waste recycling process that will help recover valuable resources from industrial scrap to an environmentally friendly insulation that can support energy efficiency in green buildings.

EPA announced that the following seven small businesses will receive contracts from EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program:

Since the program’s inception in 1983, EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research program has made close to 1,500 awards to small businesses to develop and market their technologies.  One such company, Defiant Technologies, won a Small Business Innovation Research contract in 2011 to develop a portable device to detect and analyze harmful volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the environment.  Defiant Technologies’ FROG-4000 is now available on the market and allows for onsite analysis of VOCs in 10 minutes – protecting people’s health and reducing the cost of environmental analysis.

Do you have an idea for an innovative technology that can help protect the environment? EPA is still accepting research proposals through August 13 for Small Business Innovation Research funding.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Materials Science 101: Molding Mushrooms

By Dustin Renwick

Compostable packing for shipping wineYour new TV or fancy bottle of wine came in a cardboard box that can be recycled, but thanks to a small, eco-friendly business, those white packing pieces that cushion and protect consumer goods inside boxes could go a step further in the product life cycle.

Ecovative, located in New York, wants you to throw the packaging in your compost pile.

Typically, those pieces are made of polystyrene foam, which hangs around in landfills for hundreds of years after it’s been discarded. Ecovative can replace that foam with another white material: mycelium.

Fungi absorb nutrients with their mycelia. Think of them as the roots of a mushroom.

In a five-day process, Ecovative can grow mycelia into all-natural packaging. Better yet, mycelia don’t need water or light to curl and coil into a dense, customizable form that packs eight miles of fibers into each cubic inch of material.

The other major selling point for the mushroom-based materials is that they grow in agricultural waste streams that can be adapted to regional sources. Corn stalks can be used in the Midwest, but a factory in China could use castoffs from rice production. The mycelia grows throughout the organic mass until the mold is filled, and then Ecovative heats the material to stop growth.

The company won an EPA Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant in 2009, two years after co-founders Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre started out. It is also one of the new SBIR awardees announced today, each another potential success story. (Read Ecovative’s winning research proposal: Growth of a Fungal Biopolymer to Displace Common Synthetic Polymers and Exotic Wood.)

“EPA was first to take the leap and validate this tech,” said McIntyre, the company’s chief scientist.

“The EPA SBIR was really critical for our early stage of development for several reasons. One of the most important was the peer-reviewed validation. And the funding really supported early-stage efforts in moving from the lab bench to a commercially viable prototype production line.”

Bayer, the company’s CEO, recently told The New Yorker that Ecovative aspires to be the new Dow or Dupont. McIntyre said those companies represent ubiquity for consumer products.

“We’d like to be the same,” he said. “We want to have the broadest impact possible in terms of providing environmentally friendly solutions.”

McIntyre and Bayer started small, but their company now employs 54 full-time workers overseeing projects such as new construction materials, opportunities in the automotive market, and a way to replace common plastics in packaging. The work has attracted more EPA SBIR contracts and other awards.

In May, the Small Business Administration recognized Ecovative with the Tibbetts Award, which highlights the best SBIR projects each year. The three criteria for the Tibbetts are technical innovation, business impact and broader social and economic benefit.

Mushroom materials are innovative, durable alternatives to products we often use but rarely think about. In fact, there’s a chance parts of your next house might be grown instead of fabricated or built, adding a new twist to living in harmony with nature.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.