Do you know how powerful mushrooms are? In this episode of The Understory Podcast, we dig into mycology – the study of fungi. Fungi are the planet’s natural remediators that eat and break down complex carbons and other waste. Inspired by nature, Mycocycle converts toxic waste to value using natural, mushroom-based processes.
We are joined by Joanne Rodriguez, CEO of Mycocycle, who explains in depth the power of the mushroom. Joanne talks us through her journey to reduce waste in the construction and real estate industry which resulted in harnessing this natural technology. Listen in to hear more about use cases, future applications, and bootstrapping a sustainability startup.
JJ (the host of The Understory Podcast): Hello everybody. Welcome to another episode of The Understory Podcast. We're super excited today to have Joanne Rodriguez, who is the founder and CEO of Mycocycle to join Understory and talk about the innovation that Mycocycle is bringing to our sustainable future. Joanne, thank you so much for joining us.
Before we talk about Mycocycle, talk to us about your background and why did you start the company.
Joanne: JJ, first thanks for having me. I love working with Understory and the platform you provide for technologies like mine. I appreciate that.
For 30 years, I worked in an industry that made materials for the built environment - like the roof above you and the walls around you. Those materials are made of petrochemical oil-based derivatives and those frequently go to landfill or incineration. During my career, I worked my way up and was Director of Sustainable and Strategic Initiatives for a manufacturer. We were trying to help many of our clients get to zero waste goals.
I was sitting at this intersection of zero waste and circular economy as well as leading green chemistry teams interdivisional. I could see a problem setting up - that we're building more buildings and not less, or it’s been said that we're building cities the size of New York and Paris every month for the next 40 years. And we have a lot of a lot of this high-volume waste stream.
Fast forward, I left that career in 2017. I went on a journey of learning. I'm a green infrastructure specialist. I've done a lot of vegetative roofing, and I decided to take a course in permaculture design through Oregon State University and that's where I learned about mushrooms and the power of fungi. They have the ability to really clean up heavy hydrocarbons and petrochemicals like oil, spills and soils and other industrial issues. As I researched, I saw this wasn't really happening on materials, but I'm thinking why couldn't it? In 2018, I started collaborating with a mycologist and formed Mycocycle to convert waste to value. We minimize the waste and create new opportunities for new materials using mushrooms.
JJ: Super interesting. The name of the company Mycocycle, and you kind of alluded to this already, is rooted in mycology. I don't think a lot of people understand or know even the word mycology spelled MYCOLOGY. What is mycology?
Joanne: Mycology is the study of fungi. The entire classification and this is probably a good place to point out because this is relatively new news. In the botany world, in the Kingdom world, we have plants, and we have animals and fungi. Previously they bounced back and forth between them, but it ends up that fungi are actually in their own Kingdom now known as Funga, and they eat differently and they process differently.
They're the natural remediators, so they really are at the core of so many regenerative opportunities to help clean and cure our environmental ills. Mycology is the study of fungi and from there it pans out into mushrooms and molds and allergies. It’s a big field.
JJ: You say on your website that mushrooms breakdown complex carbons, the natural world and Mycocycle is taking the science of mycology and using your experience from before and the new learnings as you shared to create Mycocycle. Tell us more about what Mycocycle is doing today and why is it innovative.
Joanne: What we're doing is we're reimagining waste management. That's a big statement because that's a $1 trillion industry and growing. In there, there's subsets of bioremediation of which myco-remediation fits in there. We initially started to go after the construction and demolition waste streams, which many would consider a beachhead strategy. There's a lot of heavy hydrocarbons in there. Our goal with that was to minimize the waste and create new biobased materials while reducing the carbon. In less time, we would be able to remove carbon from the waste management cycle and create that renewable resource and divert waste from landfill and waste management activities. We're able to avoid 2.94 metric tons of CO2 emissions.
It's really capitalizing on the efficiency of myco-remediation and properly the mycelium, so the root structure of the mushroom, so we see that when we see mushrooms, we see the top of it in the mushroom pad. The root structure is what we're using and employing as our technology the mycelium. That's key to understand because it it's what dispatches the enzyme. It's what really responds in a symbiotic nature to the elements that we mix with it, and it's also what creates the biobased material at the end of the process. It is mycelium based.
JJ: Walking through that process: does Mycocycle grow its own mushrooms? I imagine you need a lot to help transform something into a biomaterial that can then be rendered for commercial or industrial use.
Joanne: You would be surprised how much you don't need. Actually, I mean the more the merrier, right? The more we put on, the more opportunity to speed up the process, but it could also be counterproductive because the fungi like to eat these heavy hydrocarbons, these petrochemical based materials. I will also say we're working with rubber so SBR, crumb, rubber and micro plastics and foams and polypropylene, polyethylene and textiles and manufactured. It's a very long list of things. We're tackling all of them. High volume waste rooms, but we don't even get it to like mushrooms, right?
We're cultured. We're using cultures that we propagate and replicate from materials in the lab, so we can start small scale and the question is, can we grow on it? We approach many, many different types of materials that are waste concerns globally and we don't know if we can grow on it or not, right? We think we can. We have a lot of academic studies that we work with. We do research, review. And then the next question is, can we really clean it up? We have a pretty good sense of if we can grow on it, we can clean it up, but we work with different inoculation rates depending on the outcome.
If somebody wanted to take rubber waste which is facing all types of regulatory bans in the EU as well as in North America. If they want to divert it from the waste stream and maybe detoxify it or make it under a regulatory threshold or created so it could be burned more cleanly. We approach that slightly differently than if we were going to actually create a new material for reuse, which is what we're working on now with the client is to treat the rubber and create a composite material that can be used into flooring applications. There are different formulations. Once we've treated a material stream, we have the formulation for that based on the outcome that we're striving for.
JJ: For a lot of the audience who are not familiar with mycology, and based on what you describe, Joanne is that it's not like consumers can take mushrooms that they grow or buy and then use it to help breakdown things. What you're doing is you're taking the precursor to grow mushrooms for the lack of better words like this cultivated fungi, and then mix it and incorporate it into waste materials and then figure out how and then let kind of the nature of fungi develop with this waste material to see what bio product can be formed. Is that that the right characterization?
Joanne: Yeah, absolutely. It's the essence of nature versus nurture. We're training the mycelium; we're training the mushrooms to eat trash. We get a sense of what strains like, and we look at trash as food for them and then we can supplement it. So, you're absolutely right.
JJ: Got it. Did this idea exist before? Why do you think that you're working with clients now? Why is it taking off now? Is it because companies have more interest in applying new pioneer technologies? Is it more capital or is it just the maturation of the end-to-end technologies and processes required to do something like this?
Joanne: I think it’s a combination of those. I think one reason why we are having the success that that we've had in the last three years is we have a diversity of backgrounds. I'm coming at it from the material side like hey, we have this huge problem. It's the 4th largest waste stream in the US. Being landfilled, it's the number one waste concern in Europe. How do we tackle it? And then what else could we do?
And then working with mycologists who are thinking about it slightly differently from a pure environmental remediation sense of going at it with filtration and fairy rings to clean up water and that stuff. Great, but I think sometimes you have to reimagine the application. And unless you're head on with the problem like trying to actually solve it for customers, you're not really looking at it that way, so that there's interdisciplinary nature.
I do believe it and some of this is due to the pandemic when waste strategies got turned upside down. Everybody from the commercial world got shut down, and so residential waste management picked up and there was this huge awareness that we have a trash issue. I think people have more time to maybe research what the issues were.
From a corporate side, I'm seeing a much more rapid uptake to consider this because there's already markets out there using mycelium, so there are already companies that are employing mushroom-based materials and packaging in leather. You see protein free foods that are based out of mushrooms and so mushrooms happen to be super hot right now and we're able to feed into that that awareness.
JJ: As you're talking, Mycocycle right now is focused on industrial use cases, right? Like these high-volume waste streams as you described them and if we just kind of take what you said about mycology and what mycelium are able to do. Is it a crazy idea that years from now that the trash bins in larger cities or outside buildings will have some like mycelium grow in there? So as people put in trash, the mycelium and the mushrooms are doing its magical things and processing the trash.
Joanne: I don't think it's crazy at all. We absolutely imagine things that we’re putting patent protections on that could make this more consumer facing. We even discussed mechanisms of delivery to really decentralized waste management that from the minute a material hits a dumpster that we're able to start that process. I think that these are all really just engineering solutions. Sometimes that's the toughest part of being a startup, or being early stage, is that the imagination could take you in so many ways, I absolutely see the opportunity.
We're seeing things. There's a company called Puri Fungi based out of France and she has developed these smokestacks and we know that mycelium can breakdown the fibers and cigarette butts and so she's got a mechanism of delivery that's putting these outsides of bars and at big concerts and other and festivals. They can collect butts and treat them in these smokestacks. What you're saying is happening with different types of waste streams around the world.
JJ: Very cool. It's an incredible company and you yourself have an amazing background. You were named on ‘Forbes the Next 1000’ this year and the company has won many awards throughout the year.
How did you get started on this? Did you get funding or was it through grants? And where you guys are going from here?
Joanne: I'm self-funded. I bootstrapped us through the first 18 to 20 months. I figured who better than to invest in than to invest in myself. I was fortunate having had a really big career prior to be able to do that. We've been asked many times ‘Would you ever do a Kickstarter or something?’ Or friends and families would say, hey, you know if you ever raise some money, we'd be interested. We weighed our options.
November of 2020, we ran a six-month SEC regulated crowdfunding campaign on Start Engine and we did that for many reasons. One, it checked the box of friends and family. We always feel like if we're taking something in, people should get something out. Two, we wanted to democratize investing to allow more people to approach this and to endorse this, which led us to the third and larger piece which was getting the word out, getting education out around the issue.
We hear a lot about plastic pollution and microplastics, but we don't hear a lot about these other high-volume streams. I don't want to say it's not as glamorous, it's just not in in front of everybody. It's not as tangible I guess, and so we brought 626 investors worldwide to the table as part of our campaign. We had over 9000 visitors to the campaign and significant outreach from just every corner of the globe.
It really accomplished what we had hoped: to get us through the next rounds, get us a lab and a lab staff in it. We got nimbler in terms of what we can test and when and how we can get our story out there on not only the problem but the solution set.
JJ: Excellent. Joanne, last question for you. For any partners or prospective customers or people who even want to work with Mycocycle - how do they find out more? How do they reach out? And how do they partner?
Joanne: Sure. We will be doing an institutional raise after the first of the year. We are looking at collaborations and partners on the equipment side as well as we'll be bringing on more hires after the first of the year. The best source is our website – Mycocycle.com. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org or you can send me a note at email@example.com. I try to respond to as much as I can. I want to talk to more people that are also problem solving with mycology. We're not the only solution out there. There are other people that might be working in labs or hobbyists or in other industries that have a problem. We want to be a source that provides a platform to get those out to the real world to solve the problems. I would love to hear from people that are interested in collaboration or have ideas that they want to get flushed out. Happy to talk to others that are as much in love with mushrooms as we are.
JJ: Well, Joanne, thank you so much for sharing more about Mycocycle. It's so fascinating and we learned a lot today. Thank you so much for carving out time. We look forward seeing more progress and the impact from your company.
Joanne: Thanks so much JJ. I appreciate the time today.