”Fungi is a great example in showing that it is possible to create systems that resonate with the greater ecosystem”
On why mushrooms will take over the creative industries
October 18, 2023
Who are you?
— I’m the founder of Officina Corpuscoli, a design research studio based in the Netherlands, investigating opportunities at the intersection between design and science, and specifically microbiology and mycology. I’m also the founder and an active driver of Sqim, a company that runs two production and business lines. One is called Mogu, for materials derived from fungi and dedicated to interior architecture and the building industry. The other is called Ephea, dedicated mostly to fashion-related applications, automotive, and what people traditionally call alternative leather materials.
You are a pioneer in the field and more than 10 years ago, you initiated a project called The Growing Lab — Mycealia. What can you say about it?
— We started investigating the opportunities emerging when partnering with microbial systems, specifically fungi. We were employing them in their key role of fundamental disassemblers and decomposers in the natural world and feeding them with residues from other industries, from other value chains as, for instance, the agro-industrial value chain, as well as the manufacturing industry when it comes to any type of material that is considered a waste. But in fact, we go beyond the notion of waste, we are here to question and to show that there is no such thing. It’s a product of human culture, the notion that we invented, as in fact, we feed these residues, this byproduct of low-value materials, to selected fungi cultures in order to promote their propagation and create novel matters. As fungi are in fact the ultimate alchemists of the natural world, they are able to transform materials into other organic compounds, different types of biopolymers and polysaccharides. This is the mycelium, which is the organism, the vegetative body of fungi.
And how do they do it?
— By practicing a very complex biochemistry. They are much closer to humans than plants despite the fact that many people still think that fungi are plants. No, they are a kingdom on their own. For instance, they breathe oxygen and expel CO2 — their behaviour is much closer to that of animals. When it comes to digestion, we humans insert food into our bodies in order to derive nutrition and gather energy. Fungi insert their bodies into the food and their digestive system is not as complex as ours. What they do is to secrete different types of compounds and enzymes that degrade whatever kind of substrate they are feeding on. This is how they metabolise all the starches, sugars, and cellulose that are contained in the plant matter. And they transform the materials that they use as nutrition into other polysaccharides. We are talking about different types of glucans, beta-glucans, and other biopolymers such as chitin as part of their cell wall. Chitin is the same biopolymer that makes up the exoskeleton of marine life that shrimp shells and crab shells are made of.
— It’s by being able to balance the type of products that fungi are capable of producing when changing the different environmental conditions in which they are grown to derive the different types of properties that are pervasive to a material. It’s techno-mechanical properties as much as experiential properties — we are talking about haptics and all that they can elicit in the final user.
We’ve seen a huge growth for different mushrooms used in the creative sectors. What’s the reason you think?
— Certainly, the attention of designers, creatives, and artists has shifted. Design has finally found back to its original value in trying to contribute to an advancement of the conditions in which humans are inserted, which is basically something that we could just define as nature. For me, it’s been a bit of a surprise, considering that when I started working in this direction more than 10 years ago, I was looked at and pointed out with a great dose of scepticism. ’Oh, you’re working with fungi — funny, nice, whatever, it’s just this kind of playful thing you’re doing’.
— Nowadays, to see fungi as materials or partners, enabling a total shift in terms of the paradigm of production, rather than material fruition, and the enthusiasm that the community at a global scale is expressing is very motivating — and totally unexpected. I have to say it’s been so intense that it has become a bit of a trend lately. Despite this enthusiasm being pervasive to society, it is still very much of a niche enthusiasm. Not everyone knows about the great opportunities that come from working with fungi. We still live in a society that tends to be quite ’microphobic’ and scared of fungi, rather than ’microphilic’. This is a result of our cultural dynamics; fungi are typically associated with death and decomposition. In fact, it is the key to what fungi finally enables — regeneration. It’s fundamental to keep that in mind when thinking about the lifecycle of everything that exists, including us. And fungi is a great example, both metaphorically and practically, in showing that it is possible to create systems, solutions, and materials, also practical means, that resonate with the cycles of the greater ecosystem.
And when companies and organisations reach out to you, what are they looking for?
— All these experimental activities were born in the realm of my studio Officina Corpuscoli, which is relatively small, Montalti explains. But from there also certain frustration and a related drive emerged due to the fact that they kept talking about the great impact that those processes that I was enabling could bring about. But I was talking with the cultural audience, museums, and galleries, and it was fantastic conversations, but very limited. It was narratives and storytelling fueled by physical objects but collector objects, and my intention was to create impact. And that’s why I started a scale-up company at industrial level in 2015 with the ambition of standardising and bringing it up to industrial scale. Again, these types of technologies are very complicated and take some time, but today, we are in a nice position.
— As described, our company is powering two different lines. And usually, when they reach out to us, it’s with a clear objective in mind. Whether it’s about creating a specific type of interior that needs to perform in a certain way, and where performance is key because what we deliver is function is functionality. It is not just about the narrative.
— The narrative comes last. What comes first is a product that needs to be coherent, consistent, and it needs to deliver the performance promised for the application it delivers. So, acoustic absorbent panels made out of fungi need to be effective in absorbing the frequencies of speech in interior environments and creating a condition of comfort.
— The second thing is pricing — it needs to be competitive in the market. If your innovation is too costly from a production perspective and therefore too costly for the final user in terms of pricing, it has no future in the contemporary framework that we exist within as part of existing industries.
— These are fundamental aspects and very challenging aspects when aiming to standardise a biological phenomenon. These phenomena are, by definition, unpredictable because they have their own agency. What we in fact are doing is learning, and we have learned a lot, but there’s still plenty more. This includes how we can cooperate with the organism without pretending to control the organism. Yet always obtaining very pragmatically given specs when it comes to things like tensile strength, compressive strength, resistance to humidity, rubbing or light fastness or all of the different parameters that the material can be characterised for in order to deliver what it promises. All of this is to make a big difference because the world out there is populated by lots of media that tend to perpetrate, nowadays more than ever, messages that lack depth and tend to be very superficially approached. Like the notion of sustainability, environmental responsibility, circularity, or regeneration has very often just become buzzwords, massively utilised to seduce an audience to buy a certain product.
— What we want to do is to deliver effective change and to practice business in the most honest and transparent way. We know that we are not perfect, despite the fact that we have far more preferable products than existing products derived from materials that are the result of exploitation and extraction, such as crude oil, plastics, and synthetics. Or animal-derived materials, which are highly problematic in terms of the value chain, the killing, the massive breeding, and so on. It’s important to say at a given moment in time what you are and what you are not. In order to deliver a product, you always need to combine different technologies and the natural material alone is often not sufficient as a technology. This is where the great controversial aspect is: the duality between, again, the will to have a material fully degradable and yet to have it long-lasting. There’s something not clicking over there.
— So it’s either about letting go of our obsession with eternity and embracing ephemerality and temporality as a key aspect of life, or in fact, pervasive to our life. Yet knowing how to program a material, a biological material in order to change, inform, and function and eventually degrade at the end of its life. Or it is about embracing for the time being small, yet acceptable compromises that allow you to obtain materials that can be quite long-lasting without compromising the core organic content, characterizing them. And therefore working with chemistry to augment and finish a certain type of material product. although, it should be an acceptable compromise; otherwise, you end up with the same problem that you are trying to tackle.
Where are we heading in 2, 3 years from now?
— A lot will happen. In terms of market development, we will witness an additional emergence of products, arriving from a fermentation-based cycle as enabled by fungi and launched by giant players. Here, I’m particularly thinking of the fashion realm, where today, the leading actors are luxury houses, the big holdings and all of the brands that they control. These are key partnerships that would allow for further democratisation and penetrate the market in a much more consistent way, seeing as they reach out to a huge amount of consumers.
— Even if we’re talking luxury and it sounds like it’s exclusive to a few, it’s culturally impactful to many and it’s inevitably always the starting point of any kind of innovation, says Montalti. You need to start from products that have a high value in order to derive through industrial scalability and economies of scale and all other aspects come down also to be able to benefit the greatest collectivity, which is the goal. It is the ultimate goal. But it’s a goal that takes time. In fact, the key to all of this is the research needed for really tapping on the incredible potential that fungi express and that we know so little about.
— We are today quite presumptuous ourselves too with our initiatives in believing we know a lot. And we do know a lot, but it’s nothing compared to all that needs to be unravelled. In fact, we are barely scratching the tip of a much, much larger iceberg when it comes to really unlocking and understanding the behaviour of these very complex organisms. One could say that, well, it’s microbes, they are not that complex. Oh yeah, they are and they are also very, very intelligent and yet they have no brains and they are also contributing to all that we know in ecology, in making us humans. And today also making materials. This is to say that years and years, decades and centuries of research are needed to really derive the greatest values that again, collaborating with fungi could deliver in society.
— And the work of many is needed too, because today, there are quite a few researchers and research groups in academia, but also in the private sector that cultivate this type of investigation. But when it comes to the impact that these investigations can make at scale, there are very few players on a global scale. And we are roughly three at this moment doing this job.
— With our company, I believe without willing to be presumptuous about it but being the only European player, the other few being in the States. So this is just to say that there is a lot of space out there and there is a lot of space in the market. Competition is not a problem. It’s a positive thing because it becomes a way to push it.
— There is also a reason why not many really make the step to bridge beyond research towards industry. It’s complicated, it’s costly, it’s difficult, it’s uncertain. It’s not a safe entrepreneurial journey. Probably there is no safe entrepreneurial journey whatsoever. But this is a particularly complicated one because there’s hardly anything that you can rely upon. There’s no prior art, everything needs to be developed from scratch. So it’s definitely a pioneering work the one that we conduct and the one that other like-minded researchers, artists, designers, and entrepreneurs conduct and that is what makes it exciting but also extremely challenging.
Maurizio Montalti is currently a part of the exhibition Fungi – In Art and Science at the Nobel Prize Museum in Stockholm