Expert view: Biomaterials with Philip Ross

Philip Ross is the cofounder and CTO of MycoWorks, a San Francisco-based company that grows leather-like biomaterials out of mycelium. He is an artist, inventor and entrepreneur, and visiting scholar at Stanford University.

The majority of our material-generating complex industry is dependent on petroleum as an energy source, as well as the means of material production: plastics, synthetic polymers, all sorts of things. The price of this is not tenable to support how we’re living. That’s the bottom line.

As energy becomes more expensive, materials will become more expensive. This will not go away, so we have to create commodities that are not based on a fluctuating variable. How do we continue to create cheap resources that can supply everybody on the planet?

This is where mushrooms come in. They work through decomposition; there is continual generation of organic matter. We can guarantee it. We can look at that and call it garbage, but it is a resource that can provide for us: it is potentially your food, your house, even your jacket. There is not so much a crisis of materials, but of how we think about them, organise them and use them.

We grow corn but we only eat 3 to 10 percent of the plant we’ve grown. Why not use that other 90 percent?

This is being taken seriously at the highest levels of academia and government: we can make more, and use less material, and recycle. All the pieces are in place. Making mushroom-generated materials is not so very different from growing food, and the processes we use, such as pasteurisation, are globally distributed. People grow crops all over the planet, people grow mushrooms all over the planet.

“There is not so much a crisis of materials, but of how we think about them, organise them and use them.”

You hear a lot about ideas that might happen in 10 years’ time but this stuff is here — it can grow now. At least three other companies have already started up around the planet and there will be others — this is part of 
a wave.

The biggest restrictions are not technical; they are financial and legal. Petroleum byproducts are underwritten by huge investments, so there’s no way a small startup can compete in that arena. There is no replacement for polystyrene in terms of cost, for example.

However, when restrictions are put on materials known to be toxic and they are banned, businesses respond very rapidly because they can’t sell their products. So they find alternatives. Northern Europe has active laws about materials that are organic and recyclable; companies have developed new technologies and are in a great position to sell them to the rest of the world. We need to set the course of how to be right. Then industry will fall into line.

IMAGINE: Exploring the brave new world of design and manufacturing,
is a SPACE10 publication investigating manufacturing in the digital age, materials of tomorrow and circular economies.

Read the next part:
Chapter 5. The Business of Tomorrow: Leading by Example

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