Eben Bayer is guest blogging for the Forum. He is CEO of Ecovative Designs and is attending the Annual Meeting in Davos. He is a 2011 Technology Pioneer
Traveling to Davos is an experience in itself. I arrived in Europe from the US on a Boeing 777 and I connected to Davos via train. The efficient Swiss rail system exposed breathtaking views of the Swiss country side: steep mountains, flanked by lakes, with distant peaks disappearing into snow heavy clouds. My final leg took place on a preposterous train. This un-assuming rail rider headed up the mountain towards Davos, weaving back and forth through the forest, hugging the contours of the hill, and generally doing things an American train would only dream of.
Why do I start with my arrival? Well, we all know that getting there is half the fun. But it is unfortunately also a big part of our environmental problems. One of the World Economic Forum’s initiatives launched this year is “Towards a Greener Davos”. A concerted effort to reduce the emissions and impact of holding the conference.
This is an important effort, and a concession to the reality that having 2,500 people travel to a semi-remote mountain location (Mostly flying from around the globe) has a phenomenal negative environmental impact. I estimated we are contributing between 1 Million and 2 Million Kilograms of direct CO2 emissions in air travel alone. This sets a high bar for all attending to commit and connect on offsetting positive impacts
Fortunately, in just the few days I have been here, I see this happening all around me. Within the Tech Pioneer and Social Innovators I have met individuals and groups with groundbreaking technologies, business models, and social approaches, who are producing positive environmental paybacks on the ground today.
I am honored to be included in these group’s, and am thrilled to be able to share what Ecovative, my company, is doing to produce our own positive environmental impact.
Ecovative is a triple bottom line company with a simple vision: Grow materials that perform better than plastics, that have a positive impact on the environment, and that cost no more than conventional materials. Conventional plastics are poisoning our planet, clogging our oceans, killing our birds, our fish, and contributing to the toxic chemicals that build up in our blood.
At Ecovative we take agricultural waste from local farms, things like seed husks or plant stalks, not food. We transport these to a local facility, where we wet them and pour them into customized forms. We then add our key ingredient: mycelium cells (these are roughly analogous to the root structure of a mushroom). Over the next 5 days, indoors, in the dark, these cells go to work, digesting the seed husks and self assembling an incredibly dense network of cells (see a time lapse of this in action: here). Amazingly, these cells are essentially a natural polymer, and when you dry this creation out, you are left with a material that performs very similarly to conventional plastics.
While it sounds strange, this approach has proven incredibly effective. EcoCradle, which replaces Styrofoam™ packaging, launched early last year with Steelcase. Like the foam they used before, it protects their products in shipment all around the world, for exactly the same cost. Unlike plastic foams, EcoCradle was made with a fraction (around 1/5th!) the energy, and is totally compostable, without processing, whereever it ends up.
We spent the last 4 years developing this technology, and are scaling it as fast as we can.
But the big idea I am evangelizing today is not EcoCradle.
I believe that great environmental technologies do not have to come with economic or performance based trade offs. In our multi-faceted world their are billions of solutions to every problem. In the past we often picked the first, the fastest, the easiest. Now, as we reach the carrying capacity of our planet, we must demand more. We need solutions that are win-win-win, great performance, competitive pricing, and environmentally beneficial. These solutions exist, they just not the most obvious, the most conventional, or the most compatible with the status quo.
I am thrilled to report that my fellow Tech Pioneers and Social Fellows are already following this model:
• Stuart Evans of Novacem produces a form of carbon negative cement, scaling quickly, he appears to have a CO2 negative building technology that really works, with price and performance parity.
• Reed Paget’s non-profit One Earth Innovation is launching environmentally positive consumer products and combining them with great story-telling to galvanize change in his region. Reed has launched a garbage catching barge into the Thames, and next time you are in London, look out for version 2.0: A giant garbage gobbling Thames based turtle, both mechanically and emotionally effective at reducing water born litter.
• Harish Hande of Selco Solar Light has blended holistic need analysis with personalized financing solutions to create a sustainable energy non-profit. Harish has proven that with the right model and choices of technology, sustainable energy is not just accessible, but preferable and affordable, to those in the developing world.
Stuart, Reed, and Harish, all demanded more with their solutions. Harish says that renewable power does not need to be more expensive, or harder to access, or require big upfront payments. Harish challenged conventional wisdom behind solar deployment, he demanded more, and he delivered, with over 100,000 systems in use today.
These are just a few example of some of the incredible disruptive change makers I am meeting and being inspired by at Davos. From what I have seen, their passion, enthusiasm, and approach to problem solving will continue spread, more than offsetting all those intercontinental flights. Here’s to the crazy ones!