Ecovative Design LLC, a company started by two recent Rensselaer graduates, was awarded £10,000 (approximately $20,500) as a winner of the 21st Century Challenge Competition in December. Hosted by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, the international business plan competition challenged participants to develop innovative, sustainable new business ventures that will help solve the major social and environmental challenges of the 21st century.
Now located in the Rensselaer Incubator Center, Ecovative Design LLC was formed by dual mechanical engineering and product design and innovation (PDI) majors Eben Bayer ’07 and Gavin McIntyre ’07. The company won the competition’s “Tomorrow’s Planet” category for its development of environmentally friendly organic insulation. Made from waste agricultural materials, water, and mushrooms, the organic insulation could replace the traditional foam insulations in homes, which require petroleum for production and are not biodegradable.
Participants were required to submit a five-page business plan focusing on one of three challenge categories that included: “Tomorrow’s Planet,” focused on environmental challenges; “Tomorrow’s People,” concentrated on healthcare and medical challenges; and “Tomorrow’s Wealth,” centered on challenges of social inequality and the distribution of wealth. First-round judges scored each entry and reduced the field to nine finalists three per category.
The nine finalists presented their business plans to a panel of judges that included representatives from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the Financial Times, and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) the largest single endowment devoted exclusively to supporting talent, innovation, and creativity in the UK.
An overall competition winner received £35,000. Winners of each challenge category received £10,000. Open to all for-profit, commercial ventures that have received less than £250,000 (roughly $515,775) in funding, the competition received more than 180 entries from 23 countries.
The insulation, called Greensulate, is created by pouring a mixture of insulating particles and nutrients into a panel enclosure, and injecting it with mushroom cells that digest the nutrients and produce a tightly meshed network of insulating particles and mycelium. The result is an organic composite board that has a competitive R-Value a measurement of resistance to heat flow and can serve as a firewall.
The organic idea was born during a class Bayer took called Inventor’s Studio, where students were challenged to create sustainable housing. Bayer was tasked with improving the insulation of a conventional home.
“Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre are outstanding examples of the innovative and forward-thinking students that Rensselaer educates,” said Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. “Recognition of their environmentally friendly organic insulation which has implications in the areas of green building, energy efficiency, and sustainability as one of the best inventions in this international competition affirms that these recent graduates have what it takes to make a difference on the global scale.”
“What Eben and Gavin are doing with organic insulation has the potential to represent a truly disruptive technology,” said Burt Swersey, a lecturer in Rensselaer’s department of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering, and Bayer’s teacher in Inventor’s Studio. “I applaud them for their vision and their passion to use technology to create significant value for all. Organic insulation holds the promise of creating a win-win-win situation: better insulation that saves energy, at a lower cost, and in harmony with the environment.”
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