Eben Bayer appears to have struck on a truly remarkable solution for more environmentally friendly materials, with massive potential. His startup has already raised over $100M in capital from top-tier investors like Siam Capital, Viking Global Investors, Senator Investment Group, and Alpha Impact Investment Management Partners.
In this episode, you will learn:
- Sticking with it on the tough days
- Getting help with fundraising or selling your business
- The books you should be reading
- How to get a 30% discount on the tools to set up your own podcast
- Wine as an investment
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About Eben Bayer:
Eben Bayer the CEO and co-founder of Ecovative. He uses biology to create disruptive solutions that are good for people and the planet. He has evangelized a strategy of bio-adaption around the world, including presentations at TED Global, PopTech, and The World Economic Forum in Davos.
Eben is also interested in augmentative neuro-systems, thermodynamics, education, and monetary systems modeled around life. He serves on the external advisory board of the ASU Origins project, the business board of Tech Valley High School, and advises start-ups in and around New York.
Eben studied at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where he received dual degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Innovation & Design. For 18 years prior to that, he studied agriculture and farming through hands-on learning at his family farm in central Vermont.
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Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Hey, guys. Today’s episode is brought to you by Zencastr. I remember back in the day when I was looking at putting together Zencastr. I was looking for a solution that would help me in putting things together. Essentially, this is what allowed me to bring DealMakers to life. Basically, Zencastr, what it is is an all-in-one solution where you just send a link to the person that you’re looking to interview. They would plug in their computer with their video, with the audio, and then you are good to go. You would piece everything together, give it to your audio engineer or even edit it yourself, and you are off to the races. Now, if you’re looking at getting into podcasting, you should definitely check Zencastr out, and you could also get a 30% discount, and this is the discount code that you will be able to redeem by going to Zen.ai/dealmakers0. Lastly, I was very much blown away when I found out that investing in wine has been one of the best-kept secrets amongst the wealthy. This is now not the case anymore. I came across this solution, which is called VinoVest, and they are a great solution that allows you to diversify investing by implementing or including wines into your portfolio. Take a look at this: wine has one-third of the volatility of the stock market, and yet it has outperformed the global equities market over the past 30 years with 10.6% annualized revenues. It’s a really good way to diversify your portfolio, and you could also get two months of free investing by just going to Zen.ai/dealmakers, and by going there, you will be able to redeem your discount.
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Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. He is very exciting, the entrepreneur that we have today joining us. I think that we’re going to be learning a lot about really getting to product/market fit and then how to figure out the execution. But again, as we like to always hear it, there’s going to be a lot of fundraising, a lot of building, a lot of moments of being close to death as a company. But I don’t want to wait any longer. Let’s welcome our guest today. Eben Bayer, welcome to the show.
Eben Bayer: Hey, thank you.
Alejandro: Eben, tell us a little bit about your upbringing. You were born on the floor of a farmhouse in Vermont. That has to be one of the very first individuals that, at least in 2022 that I’ve spoken with that has gone through that experience, so how were your upbringings growing up? Tell us about it.
Eben Bayer: I’ll tell you. It’s a great way to enter the world and very traditional for a Vermonter. I really grew up in the woods, like bathing in the pond in the summertime and working on a real family farm, hardscrabble farm. We had pigs and chickens, and we cut our own firewood. The big thing we did was to make maple syrup. We had trees in the spring. We canned the syrup, and then we would deliver it to our local co-op for sale. We had an idyllic four-season farm, which is also not very profitable to be part of, but a really nice way to grow up.
Alejandro: It sounds like you were outside quite a bit. How did you get into computers and technology?
Eben Bayer: I was fortunate that my parents are like polar opposites. My dad was very much back to the roots, back to the earth kind of guy. He worked the farm, loves nature, etc. My mom was actually in publishing. So in the late ‘80s, we had a Mac at home, so I had this dichotomy in my life where I’d be awakened at 3:00 am with my dad going, “Eben! The cows are out again.” We’d run outside; we’d put our boots on. You’d chase the cows, and then you’d get the grain, you’d sook, sook, and you’d get the cows to come back. Then I’d go back inside and ask my mom if I could go on the computer and play and play SimCity.
Alejandro: That’s amazing.
Eben Bayer: She was super supportive of giving me those technical outlets as well.
Alejandro: At 18, that’s the time where you decided to leave the comfort zone of being at home in the woods, and you decided to go and study mechanical engineering, but there’s an interesting event there that cost a shift into biology. So tell us about that.
Eben Bayer: Yeah. I was very into computers growing up on the farm. I was really tired of birthing animals and all the stuff that goes into the husbandry of being on a farm. I wanted to be part of the future, part of technology, part of computer science, learn how jet engines work, etc. I went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to do that. I was going to get a dual degree in mechanical engineering and product design invention. About halfway through my first year, I realized I had made a massive mistake: the most advanced and beautiful technology in the world isn’t a jet engine; it’s a chicken, the thing I was trying to escape. Biology was this beautifully complex technology that we could use to live sustainably on Planet Earth. That was also driven for me by just moving from a town of 2,000 people to a city of 60,000 people and being like, “Wow! This is how people live?”
Alejandro: Let’s talk about that moment where the idea of Ecovative came to you and what caused you to decide to jump on that wagon?
Eben Bayer: Ecovative is the combination of an idea, which was a combination of something I had seen growing up in nature on the farm, mycelium, growing on wood chips. The problem statement I encountered at school was: can we come up with a better, safer glue to bind particles together? I had this picture in my head of “Wait. Could we grow a glue?” Then a really important individual in my life, a gentleman by the name of Burt Swersey, who was a professor at RPI, and he was the one who taught me about invention, inventorship, and entrepreneurship, and ultimately convinced me to start this business, and he was my first investor.
Alejandro: So how did you secure that first investor because, typically, the first investment is the hardest?
Eben Bayer: I should say at this point in school, I teamed up with my close friend, collaborator, and co-founder, Gavin. We were trying to figure that out. We were graduating in the spring semester. We had a puck of mycelium composite that we had now grown under our various dorm room beds. We applied for some grants, and we actually both had jobs and job offers already, and we had Full Ride Scholarships to go back to school. We had a professor who was like, “You guys have to drop out and start a company. You’ve got to quit your jobs. Finally, Burt called me the day I was going to my job the first day. I graduated; I got home, and I told them I was going to do this in my spare time, and when we got far enough along, we would raise money. He’s like, “Look. I found $5,000 in the school budget. If I get you $5,000, is that enough to live on for the summer for you and Gavin?” I was like, “I guess so.” I drove to work that day. I thought about it, and I quit when I showed up at the office. Then later that summer, he became our first investor. He invested about $25,000.
Alejandro: Now, we’re going to be talking a little bit about mycelium. So why don’t we first define it, especially for those that are beginners at this, or it’s the first time they hear about mycelium. What is mycelium, and then also, how do you guys go about it and the business model of the company to date?
Eben Bayer: Mycelium is what you would think of as the root structure of a mushroom. So when you see a mushroom in the woods, whether it’s coming out of the ground or growing on a tree, that’s actually like a tiny portion of the mushroom’s total biomass, its size, and its lifecycle. Mycelium is the underground network, and it acts as a recycling system in nature, breaking down leaves and twigs to turn it into soil. It also acts as a network to move nutrients, food, and information, even between roots and trees. It also can help stabilize a forest floor, much like roots could. The way we use mycelium is as a material. We actually grow it into things.
Alejandro: How does that translate to the business model, and how do you guys go about things and make money today?
Eben Bayer: What I’ve learned over the years is there are three critical elements that we have to watch to have a successful business here. The first is to make sure that we’re solving really important problems for the world. These are things that you should fix, like plastic pollution or industrial agriculture. Second, it has to relate to cultural megatrends. For things to get funded, especially in the early days, there has to be a degree of cultural mania around this. I believe this is referred to often as like products [9:27]. The third one is you have to be really disciplined about a new technology and making sure that technology, in this case, mycelium, is uniquely applicable in comparison to any other approach you would use to solve this problem. That guarantees you’re going to build the defensible, and hopefully, extremely profitable business, which is necessary to stay in capitalism, which is important if you want to address big problems.
Alejandro: So let’s talk about capitalism. How much money have you guys raised for the business in total?
Eben Bayer: We didn’t raise a lot of money for a long time, so I was really proud, and my co-founder, Gavin, is very proud of this that we bootstrapped, in comparison, especially to some of our biotech peers for a long time. In our first three or four years, I think we raised just a couple of million dollars. More recently, we’ve been scaling up plants around the world, and we raised about $110 million last year, and I think about $150 or $160 total.
Alejandro: Wow. That’s quite a bit of zeros there, Eben. So good stuff.
Eben Bayer: We’re supposed to return a 10x, so, you know. [Laughter]. I would prefer to raise less and do more with it.
Alejandro: I hear you. What was the process like because, obviously, something so innovative like this, I’m sure it was not an easy journey to educate people?
Eben Bayer: It wasn’t, and 1) when I was starting, I was just horrible at it because I had never done it before, even with great coaches and mentors. 2) One of the things that hurt us most, in the beginning, was maybe having some product/market fit but not having the product [11:03] fit. We were working on a single-use plastic pollution in 2008 and 2009. This wasn’t really a thing. I’d go to customers, and they’d be like, “Well, Styrofoam, you can recycle.” I’d be like, “No, you really can’t.” I had to do all this education, and the same was true with the investor class. Now, I’m finding the opposite.
Alejandro: Why now the opposite?
Eben Bayer: The difference is, in some cases—I’ll use mushroom packaging, which was our first product, and our flagship as an example. It’s a grown, molded replacement for polystyrene. It looks like Styrofoam packaging you get in the mail, but it’s made from hemp and mycelium. We grow it in a couple of days in a mold. When you’re done using it, you can throw it into your garden, and it is nutrients. It’s not a pollutant. It falls out of your trash can because you’re going to landfill it, and it ends up in the street, and a car drives over it. You know what? That’s fine. It’s going back to nature. It will even be marine compostable. It will break down in the ocean. These were attributes that no company was willing to assign a monetary value to at Ecovative. We made very few changes to this platform over the past decade, and sometime in the last three or four years, it went from a product push sale to a massive market pull. Now, we’ve just been trying to catch up with demand, licensing folks around the world and helping them set up raw material supply chains.
Alejandro: Now, product/market fit is everything. I know that for you guys, 2018 was a big year because that’s where everything started to come together, and that was a turning point. What happened there that caused you guys to rethink the way you were doing things, and how did that take you to where you are today?
Eben Bayer: We did something that we really wanted to do, which was we brought our business to profitability, and I’m proud of that. We did so as a small team, so 30 to 40 individuals. We had a lot of stuff jammed into the business. We had a packaging component. We were developing this next-generation leather. We were thinking about developing next-generation food-like materials, which turned into our bacon. It was too much in one business. There was that tension going on, and then also a realization that to tackle what we wanted to tackle, we had to get bigger. Either become the biggest and the best, or you lose in this world right now. At that point, I met an individual, Jessica Harris, who helped me navigate a change in the entire business. We converted Ecovative to be a material research platform. It already had the world’s largest mycelium IP portfolio, and we doubled down on making it the world leader in mycelium research. How do you grow mycelium? How do you grow it at scale? Then we started focusing on the market opportunities as separate things. That led to us spinning out our first company, MyForest Foods, which is commercializing My Bacon, which is a phenomenal fungi-based bacon.
Alejandro: Why did you decide to spin off the business versus doing it all under that same umbrella?
Eben Bayer: It’s an interesting question because, in some ways, you could say it’s cosmetic, but it’s proven to be powerful at driving focus among people and teams. Ultimately, it’s the people that get the work done. What it’s allowed the Ecovative team to do is get really clear on thinking about independent market needs. How do you grow and manipulate mycelium? What is the best way to trigger these responses? What are the most efficient ways to manufacture it? So, a very pure-play focus that can then be spread across many different markets. On the other side of the coin in MyForest Foods, we’ve been able to track the best talent in the food industry—folks out of Cargill, folks that were at Stonyfield. Our board includes Gary Hirshberg, the founder of Stonyfield, Stephen McDonnell, the creator of Applegate, the premier organic pork brand that was eventually sold to Hormel for a billion dollars. I could have never created that as an internal team of division. Now, it’s its own entity that can fully live and breathe food without worrying so much about the technological backend, and the technology Ecovative has been developing from MyForest Food, we’ll take into another business, Forager, which will grow leather. And it’s almost the same exact technologies applied to a different market.
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Hey, guys. Pardon the interruption here. I’ve got to tell you that for those of you that are either looking to raise money, or you’re looking to get your company acquired, you don’t have to be alone. There is a lot of psychology that needs to be blended with strategy, with methodology, with process, and it’s very hard, and doing your business alone is super, super difficult. I remember back when I was an entrepreneur, I kept experiencing the challenge of either knowing or finding the right type of access to the right type of investors or understanding what was the right type of guidance that would carry me through the process, whether it was with seeking money or with going through the acquisition. So that gap that I found being an entrepreneur is ultimately what pushed me later on when I met my co-founder at Panthera, Mike Seversen, to put together an advisory firm where we are guiding entrepreneurs and founding teams through the capital raising efforts, whether you’re at a Seed stage or at a Series A stage, or if you are going through the process of an acquisition, and you are in small-to-mid cap type of cycle. Again, we would help you by guiding you and supporting you from A to Z all the way to the end as an extension of your team, and there’s no reason for you to do this alone. So, with that being said, if you would like to find out more, feel free to send me an email at [email protected], and we would love to take a look at helping you out.
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Alejandro: In this case, it’s been a tremendous journey. You’ve been at it now for close to 15 years. I can’t even imagine in dog years how many years it would be you pushing the days. It’s unbelievable. But 15 years, so many experiences, so many near-death encounters, but tell us about how you had to be in order to continue pushing and to get things going to where you are today because you had, at least, if I had to count them, probably more than five times where you almost saw death.
Eben Bayer: Yes, that is very true. I guess you could just assume that I’m either insane or unreasonable as the starting point. There’s definitely been a few moments where it was close to like, “I think I should give up.” But I have always had this attitude of I’m going to keep going until someone makes me stop. That might be the bank coming and repossessing our factory. I’ve had moments in my life with my co-founder, Gavin, where we personally guaranteed a quarter-million-dollar line of credit to the company. I can assure you that we didn’t have any assets. Then a week away from running out of cash, we were able to close a financing. So, we’ve skated pretty close to the sun a few times, and I think that kind of attitude of it’s not over till it’s over, and you don’t quit until someone makes you.
Alejandro: And in your case, it seems that this is your life. Did you know that you were going to dedicate 15 years of your life or even more to this when you started the journey?
Eben Bayer: No, I actually thought we would do some technological work for a year or two, a large installation company would come along and license the technology, and I’d go work on the next thing. So, yes. That’s a bit surprising.
Alejandro: What do you think has happened? It seems that the last few years have been incredible growth for you guys, but it seems also that there has been more consciousness in the world that has created more demand around the type of stuff that you’re all doing.
Eben Bayer: Yeah. I think there have been two vectors going on here. Mycelium materials are a new thing. So when I started working in 2006 and even earlier on this, it’s not like there was a field. There was no documented anything on this. To the point, it was like, “I don’t think anyone ever did it, ever,” and we were able to file a bunch of patents for that reason. If you look at the semiconductor and if you look at new technologies, it takes about 15 years to actually get technologies to a point where they work in the world. So to my team’s credit, I think there’s been an incredible amount of learning and technological advancement that we’re not bearing the fruits of. Candidly, that came through a whole bunch of massive failures along the way. The other thing is the world really changed, and I do think there’s an awareness around: plastics in the environment are a real problem. They might even be causing health issues now. We can’t eat or grow the number of animals we’re growing if we’re going to have a sustainable climate. Those are actually starting to change purchasing decisions in different generations, and those are creating these massive demand signals, which are literally changing the flow of capital in the public markets, and now in the private markets.
Alejandro: Give us an idea, for all the people that are listening here, in terms of scope and size, how big is the company, today and is there anything that you can share in terms of numbers, employee count, whatever that is?
Eben Bayer: I’ll tell you a million pounds of our products are produced worldwide. We’re in the process of commissioning a single factory that will be almost three million pounds of annual mycelium production. That will be online this summer. And we have about 100 people between Ecovative and then our sister company, MyForest Foods, and about 450,000 square feet of research space, manufacturing space, and now pick and processing space.
Alejandro: That sounds like a lot of people, so how do you think about culture?
Eben Bayer: Well, that’s another thing that I evolved on. When I started, I was like, “I just need some more bodies.” [Laughter] Which, as you recognize, is an insane statement.
Eben Bayer: Now, it’s like the single most important thing to me, and both taking care of people is important to me, from a value perspective, and then aligning people. We’re all good at stuff, and we’re all bad at stuff. I think there’s a lot of focus on you’ve got to figure out where you’re weak and improve those areas so you can be a well-rounded individual. I’m a fan of the opposite. What I mean by that is we try to figure out employees’ ultimate strengths. What are you absolutely better than anyone in the world and also gives you tons of energy? Align their roles with their strengths, and to the degree that they have weaknesses that we can get out of their role, yeah, you’ve got to compensate up to a level. You’ve got to be able to leave the house and wear pants if you’re not a snappy dresser. But just get to the bare minimum and keep focusing on your strengths. We really try and do that for the team. It’s a very intense environment in any kind of startup, but we try and keep it kind, blame-free, and friendly.
Alejandro: What have you done to be able to maintain that way of thinking and those fundamental pillars of the culture when you’re growing so fast and adding more people?
Eben Bayer: We have a phenomenal people team. My chief people officer, Deb Antonelli, I met over a decade ago. She first consulted for us. She had her own HR consultancy. I finally convinced her to come in-house a few years ago. She’s been incredibly intentional around culture and making sure we shepherd culture. There are others on our team like Jen Towne, whose strength is a warm, welcoming individual. Everyone goes through the orientation process with her and has access to that. It’s like an attraction thing. You keep attracting people who are like that. We’ve been fortunate on that basis. We’ve paid a lot of attention to it. We don’t always get it right. We’re still making mistakes, like, right now, in culture, I’ll tell you. We’re trying really hard, and we’re paying a lot of attention to it. We are in a fast-growth period, so it’s a reminder to pay even more attention.
Alejandro: Imagine you go to sleep tonight, Eben, and you have a sleep of a lifetime. You wake up in a world, let’s say, five years later where the vision and the mission of the company of Ecovative and MyForest Foods are fully realized. What does that world look like?
Eben Bayer: There are mycelium factories around the globe that are emitting clean water vapor, taking waste products like wood chips, and they’re converting them into things like MyBacon, which substitutes for pork in both an ethically important way and also environmentally. There are factories that are taking in the same raw ingredients and using a different strain of mycelium to make leather-like materials, plastic foams for shoes, plastics for cars, and all of these facilities, when we come up with the next product in the mycelium foundry can get a software update over the air. So we’ll send a new strain of mycelium out to the factories. You don’t have to rip them down. You don’t have to retool them because the factory is the mycelium, and we could then start making aerospace composites in those same plants. That’s my vision for how the whole manufactured and build-world changes. It starts at the manufacturing and then these materials when they’re healthy when they’re around humans or healthy for you to eat, at the end of their lives can return to nature, just like everything we’ve had until about 75 years ago.
Alejandro: I love that. Now, imagine I put you into a time machine, Eben, and I take you back in time, perhaps to that moment that you were in school, and you were not sure what was going to be next, and maybe starting a company. Imagine you had the opportunity of having a sit-down with your younger self and being able to give that younger self one piece of advice before launching a business. What would that be and why, given what you know now?
Eben Bayer: Don’t give up.
Alejandro: How do you think that has helped you? I’m sure that there were many instances that you were thinking about giving up. What do you think avoided you from doing so?
Eben Bayer: I believe in what we’re doing. I believe fundamentally that biological technology is what we need to live sustainably on spaceship earth as a society. I love humans. I love art, music, and culture. I don’t tend to create a lot of that, but I want to see it here, and I want to see humans be able to do that, not just for another 100 years, but in pure perpetuity and do it in a way that is in harmony with the planet. I think, ultimately, that’s the purpose that drives me. It’s not about getting a billion-dollar valuation, going public, or whatever. It’s like seeing these things realized in the world, and I think even in your darkest moment of a rejection from an investor, they can’t reject you on that basis. That’s inside of you.
Alejandro: Obviously, I can sense this passion, which is remarkable. I’m wondering if, as you’re looking back, they say things and especially ideas, companies, and things take time to incubate. It’s, obviously, the force that is initially built by the founder, and the team is the one that pushes everything to full alignment. But in this case, for you, as you’re looking back, do you remember that moment that perhaps triggered that awareness, love, and passion for what has come after?
Eben Bayer: I do think this goes all the way back to lying in my $200 a month apartment with five other roommates at RPI. I had a 50-pound bag of oatmeal that year that my dad had sent me that I ate three times a day, and just pining to be back in Vermont to feel the grass between my toes and the sun on my face, and it was this feeling like, “Oh, man, this is not the future I want to live in.” It was an industrialized, polluted city feeling. I think that crystallized something in me there.
Alejandro: On the engineering side, as you’ve transformed yourself as a leader, as an operator now, and as an entrepreneur, the first one that comes to mind—I was just thinking here about educating yourself and transforming yourself as the company is being built and the needs are also transforming at the same time. Has there been a moment where it was like a massive impact? I see this a lot when you go from engineering to the business side of things? Did you experience any type of challenge, or how was that transition for you?
Eben Bayer: I want to preface this by saying I made a lot of mistakes both in the business and with people, and I still do. I will say two things on that. One, being a farmer is kind of entrepreneurial. Yeah, you’re tapping trees in the woods on snowshoes for eight hours, but you’re also manufacturing a product like maple syrup, taking it to the store, doing the transaction, keeping track of all of that, so it’s a very entrepreneurial activity. I didn’t know it growing up, but I think it’s one of the best ways to be trained to be an entrepreneur is to grow up on a farm. You have to be very creative, resilient, etc., and you do learn business. Then the other for me, at least is, one of my big breakthroughs at RPI was like I figured out they kept trying to teach us the same thing, but they kept telling us it was other things. You learn electrical engineering, and then they teach you mechanical harmonic amping. They changed all the letters in the formula, but it’s the same formula. I felt that way about business, too, which is like a company is a machine. It has interlocking parts. A lot of them are humans. The relationships between them are how they interact. You have to manage it and take care of it. I tend to extract up until everything looks the same and then go back down in.
Alejandro: As we’re talking about learning and educating yourself, as an entrepreneur, what would you say has been a book that you wish you would have read sooner?
Eben Bayer: I’m really enjoying a book called Algorithms to Live By right now, which is like rules of thumb you can use to make decisions around data. The book I’m going to pitch is not available yet but will be coming out in about a year, and it’s called Don’t Do Nonsense. It’s written by the students of Burt Swersey, who taught this class at Inventor’s Studio at RPI. It was all about how do you apply invention to solving the most important pressing problems in the world? It was these teachings that led Gavin and me to form Ecovative. Look for that coming out in about a year. It’s called Don’t Do Nonsense. I wish I had it.
Alejandro: I love it. Eben, for the people that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?
Eben Bayer: You can find me on Twitter as @ebenbayer and ebenbayer.com if you want to send me a question.
Alejandro: Amazing. Well, Eben, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.
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