An Italian startup is developing and promoting the Mogu technology, by implementing the root structures of mushrooms, the mycelium, to transform and to bind agricultural by-products into strong functional composites, 100% compostable. Following the principles of “Circular Economy”, the Mycoplast (this is the name of the company) team is researching, identifying and marketing the best industrial and commercial technologies for the production of biomaterials, obtained through the use of mycelium. Today Mycoplast has won the Alimenta2Talent Award, a business idea competition, promoted by the Municipality of Milan and Science Park of Lodi, that wants to face such a challenge through innovation. Indeed, Alimenta2Talent rewards those ideas that can renovate traditional ways to cultivate, cut down on waste and increase sustainability. Il Bioeconomista interviews Federico Grati, co-founder of Mycoplast and business development manager at Clariant, where he is in charge of promotion and sales of cellulosic ethanol technology in Europe, Middle East and Africa.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
What is the activity of Mycoplast?
Mycoplast is a start up company that has developed innovative biobased materials, with a special focus on valorization of agricultural and industrial residues into a circular economy model. More specifically, the company produces and sells bio-fabricated materials, obtained from growing fungi on residues. The so-called fungal biomass is therefore converted into insulation panels, interior design and packaging. The final product is 100% biobased, a natural composite made of residues bind by mycelium that is the root part of the fungi.
Why did you decide to set up a new company in the bioeconomy?
My professional life has been linked to bioeconomy for a long time. I started in 2006 with Stefano Babbini, Ceo of Mycoplast, to invest in sustainable biofuels and I continued to develop sustainable solutions as entrepreneur and later as manager for multinationals. Stefano and I decided in 2016 to start a new adventure in biomaterials that could meet sustainability criteria, use non-food biomass and that could offer customers solutions for the circular economy. Thanks to Maurizio Montalti, a pioneer and a visionary on fungal biomass who lives and works in the Netherlands, we have decided to focus on mycelium based materials and funded Mycoplast. We thought we had market opportunities in Europe, a solid technology and the right team to set up a new company. We finally got engineering and architecture competences thanks to Francesco Amadio and Francesco Giannetti and hired technical staff in Varese and here we are.
You have won the Alimenta2talent award. What does this mean for you?
We are very proud we have achieved this result. Alimenta2talent is a prestigious accelerating program organized by Science Park of Lodi Foundation, co-financed by Municipality of Milan, focused on food, bioeconomy and life science. In 2016 the call was specifically referring to circular economy projects and we decided to apply. If has been a long journey, from selection to the mentoring phase, we finally are proud to see that the Science Park of Lodi has recognized our project as the best in circular economy.
This award means a lot for us: first of all it means we have been able to explain our model, convince the jury and the mentors about our products and finally prove the financial sustainability and the growth potential.
What are the next steps for your business development?
We have finally reached the go-to-market phase for some of our products that have been under development in the last 18 months. In particular, we have developed a biobased panel made of residues colonized with fungi and finished with a biobased resin that makes possible to use it for interior design, especially for commercial applications. We have panels made of mushrooms and cotton waste, coffee grounds, rice husk, straw that can used for furniture, wall panels and flooring; we are constantly looking for clients in the food industry, willing to fully integrate into circular economy also using our materials.
Today in which projects is Mycoplast involved?
Mycoplast has spent 18 months for the development of the business model, to address the most interesting market segments and in prototyping mycelium based products. In the meantime, we have been looking for business opportunities, strategic partnerships and sources of funds, especially from EU. We have been awarded in 2016 with a BBI project (Agrimax) to produce at demo scale fungal biomass made out of grain residues that are under-used by the food processing industry. We also participated to an ambitious BBI proposal to produce biobased materials out of inedible industrial crops, including hemp, on marginal soils and polluted land, information will be disclosed in the second half of 2017.
Finally, we are developing mycelium based materials for customers and we hope those solutions can reach the market soon. Among others, we have developed panels for interior design, insulation and roofing out of cotton waste that is really promising in terms of quality, sustainability and price.
What do you think about the new Italian strategy on bioeconomy?
The Italian strategy on bioecnomy is an important milestone to further support the development of biobased and circular economy in Italy. Our country shows excellences for bioeconomy, not only large companies but also startups have reached important results and have developed innovative solutions in this area. Further coordination, aggregation and promotion of projects can help our country to turn a tremendous potential into an engine to create jobs, boost industrial renaissance and meet targets for climate change mitigation.
We are definitely looking forward to see the work program in 2017 and we hope that our project, jointly with institutions, clusters and with the private companies involved, can provide a contribution to the full development of the biobased economy in Italy.
As far as you’re concerned, what measures are necessary to further promote the growth of bioeconomy startups in Europe?
When you ask this question to most of the startups, the answer is capital: grants, equity investors, venture capitalists. Financial resources are important, but I believe this is not the key factor to further promote our growth. Bioeconomy startups need to sell profitably their innovative products to grow, they need a stable and reliable market. For this reason I believe we need measures to create and consolidate the market. The biobased economy, especially referring to biomaterials that are substituting plastic and other fossil based materials, needs measures similar to the ones adopted by EU for renewable energies; recognition of premium price for biobased material, especially considering that the introduction of those products eliminates economic and environmental externalities typical of material derived from fossil fuels, would help to consolidate the market in a sustainable way. Finally, startups shall more and more partner with large companies, especially for R&I and demonstration projects, because this a win-win approach; the Horizon 2020 and more specifically the BBI initiative are specifically stimulating this virtuous approach.