Textiles, packaging, building materials… is there no end to what mushrooms could be used for? Apparently not. UK-based Biohm is an award-winning research and development led, bio-manufacturing company and it is pushing ahead with the advancement of its laboratory-grown, mushroom-based building product. In fact, the maker of sustainable construction materials is due to open Watchet in Somerset in September and start production later in 2020, supplying 20 homes a month, rising to 120. A second site in Newcastle upon Tyne is scheduled to begin operations in early 2021.
Here, Bio Market Insight’s Liz Gyekye catches up with Ehab Sayed, director and founder of Biohm.
Liz Gyekye (LG): What’s your background?
Ehab Sayed (ES): I grew up in Qatar, but I am originally from Egypt. In Qatar, one gets used to a lot of air-conditioned buildings, which is terrible for the environment. I travelled a lot around the world before embarking on my degree. I actually ended up travelling to some of the poorest places in the world, where I saw the stark contrast in people’s levels of happiness and opportunities. What I witnessed drove me to be part of a movement that was going to make a big change from an environmental and social perspective.
After my travels, I came to the UK to study for a civil engineering degree, but I ended up switching to design engineering because I enjoyed it more. Subsequently, I studied product design at Brunel University and I am currently studying for a PhD in architecture. Essentially, I am a design engineer.
LG: What’s the story behind Biohm?
ES: I am always taking inspiration from nature; it’s something I’ve always loved to do.
I was astonished to find out about the construction industry’s negative impact on the environment. Construction accounts for 39% of carbon dioxide emissions, 11% of which comes from manufacturing building materials, according to the IEA. CO2 is a major contributor to global warming. I don’t like these facts.
When I did my studies, I analysed what waste was being created and why it was being created. I also looked at the materials that resulted from that waste and the effect it was having on the environment, our health and wellbeing.
Fast forward to when we started out the company, we wanted to find materials that were reasonably-priced and sustainable. Yet, we had difficulty in doing so. So, we decided to develop our own materials because we couldn’t find the ones we wanted. This resulted in mushroom cultivation, fed with food waste.
I work alongside a committed team of scientists, engineers and designers, and circular economy is applied to everything we do. It runs through our whole supply chain. We take a circular approach rather than an extractive approach to the business. We are also a socially-motivated firm, and aim to give back to the community. Biohm has set up a biomanufacturing facility that works with social enterprises to help boost skills and create long-term jobs, cut waste, promote entrepreneurship, fund regional initiatives and strengthen communities in the face of challenges such as Covid-19.
When we supply our materials to projects, we aim to make sure we offer a 50% profit share to local groups.
LG: Why use mushrooms to make building materials?
ES: It is not really driven by the decisions to use the mushrooms. Actually, my main focus was to look at what nature has created, refined and optimised over billions of years. I then analysed this to understand what properties it had to offer and then married it to the construction industry.
Mycelium is the threadlike, vegetative part of a mushroom, and it is really intricate. However, you can create so many amazing things with it. We grow mycelium in a facility (quite similar to vertical farming). However, we don’t use land to grow our mushrooms. Instead, we culture our mycelium ourselves and don’t take it from the wild.
Essentially, I wanted to explore using mycelium because of the drive to look at what nature has done more elegantly than we have.
We market our products to the built environment, interior architecture, construction, and transportation sectors.
First off, our factory line based in Somerset, UK, will be producing mycelium insulation panels made from mushroom roots – followed by semi-structural construction panels produced from food waste such as orange peel.
This is interesting because most insulation panels are currently made from fossil fuel-based polyurethane and polished off with a chemical finishing. They also tend to be used in social housing developments.
LG: How does the process work exactly?
ES: We cultivate and grow and develop our own strains of mycelium and use non-invasive and non-GMO processes to do this. Basically, we use a process called directed evolution, where we expose the strains to different biological stimuli. These are wild strains found in nature.
Biohm selects the strains that are favourable to the properties we need for construction applications and
then feed it with a variety of organic and synthetic waste streams, so that we can grow them into useful materials. In fact, three of our strains can consume plastic waste (i.e. polyurethane, among others).
In addition, mycelium naturally contains a substance found in crustacean shells called chitin and we use that to emphasise the properties we want in our strains. This helps our end product become naturally fire resistant, stronger and more hydrophobic.
LG: How have you managed to scale-up rapidly within four years?
ES: Last year, Biohm raised almost £600,000 in collaboration with the Onion Collective social enterprise, through Power to Change and the Waitrose & Partners Plan Plastic Challenge.
The company has received investment from a mixture of sources including crowdfunding, R&D investors and angel investors. When we do pitch to the appropriate investors, we make proposals that focus on the social and environmental aspects of our business and mention the financial rewards at the end. This is so we can attract the appropriate investors.
As we reach a larger scale, we are looking to bring our costs of our insulation to the low-to-mid end of the market because we want to mainly target social/public housing and make our insulation mainstream.