Joanne Rodriguez Founder of GreenTech Start-up MYCOCYCLE From Trash to treasure – a paradigm shift
By Suzanne Forcese
Mycocycle addresses some of the world’s hardest to treat toxic constituents created from plastics and petrochemical.
“Mycocycle is a process to minimize waste, create new materials and reduce greenhouse gases using mushrooms. Harnessing the power of mushrooms, Myocycle can mitigate risk for governments, manufacturers and waste operators by removing harmful toxins from their trash to create a renewable resource of materials for the future.” - Joanne Rodriguez, CEO Myocycle, Inc.
Founder Joanne Rodriguez Named on Forbes The Next 1000 2021 is benefiting the environment with her company Myocycle, a waste-to-resource process that uses mycoremediation to remove harmful toxins out of trash and turn the waste into reusable materials. “I like Earth. I am a wife, a mother, aunt, sister and daughter. I believe we should all be highly motivated to figure out how to save our planet and curtail the impact of climate change. I can’t do all of the things. None of us can, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t try to do what we can.”
WT: What is mycology and how are you using this science? Why are mushrooms Nature’s greatest chemists?
Rodriguez: Mycocycle is the study of fungi and we are using a technique known as “mycoremediation” in an innovative way. Mycoremediation is a form of bioremediation that has been proven to work for centuries.
Deploying in an “untraditional” manner will allow us to solve some of the world’s greatest industrial issues.
Mushrooms are Nature’s greatest chemist because they process in three very efficient ways: bioabsorption, bioconversion, and biodegradation. Because they can employ three means of tackling chemicals, we see them as a secret weapon in combatting climate change.
We are using the mycelium of the mushroom which is the root structure because these are the muscles of the fungi. Mycelium can run for hundreds of miles under our feet, decomposing forests worldwide and regenerating our soil. We are providing the optimum conditions in a controlled environment to let the mycelium work its magic on materials containing petrochemicals and plastic polymers.
We are also using mycelium because they are Nature’s rebar. Mycelium makes a great building material which is why we are already seeing it replace plastics in packaging, foam resins and tennis shoes. Because the mycelium can clean and build, we benefit from a very efficient process which can drive circular reuses into a multitude of markets, transforming waste to value.
WT: Landfill sites are filling up fast. How fast? Why is this a problem?
Rodriguez: In the United States landfills are over 85% capacity. When China implemented its ban on “recycled” goods the situation only got worse. In Canada, you can gain a sense of urgency by looking at potential regulations impacting the landfilling of certain construction products in Quebec. Regulations will make it very costly to dispose of these waste streams or ban them entirely because they are running out of room.
Construction and demolition waste, which is our beachhead strategy, equals 660 million tons of waste each year in the United States alone. This is twice the amount of municipal and solid waste in any given year. Additionally, the waste management industry is responsible for 16% of all manmade methane gas released into our atmosphere. The industry is fueling climate change which in turn is fueling catastrophic weather events which are then creating more waste...it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
WT: And unregulated dumps are toxic to the environment...toxins that eventually make their way to our watersheds impacting our groundwater, our rivers and streams, lakes and oceans. How do you envision your Myocycle Technology mitigating all the steps from trash to a clean environment with healthy biodiversity?
Rodriguez: In our world, we would divert waste from ever ending up in a landfill but then we would “mine” landfilled waste to mitigate risk.
Mycelium could be deployed in landfill operations as well – in the physical operations—to help with filtration as a means to keep these toxins from entering the watershed.
This start-up is transforming waste into biodegradable materials
Fungi have the remarkable ability to degrade the most difficult molecules produced in Nature, such as wood lignin. Fungi synthesize the complex hydrocarbons and toxic chemicals through their enzymes, producing a beneficial result for the environment.
WT: Please describe your technology. When did the light go on for you to actually move ahead with your understanding of Nature’s design?
Rodriguez: Our process is three steps: mix it, incubate it, harvest it. We knew from very simple lab tests that the fungi liked to grow through asphalt shingles. From that day I knew the process could be developed to treat a variety of petrochemical-based products.
WT: Is anyone else employing this technology?
Rodriguez: There are companies growing materials and/or manufacturing with mycelium. There are companies that are using agricultural waste streams to make products. We have not seen any that are deploying mycoremediation on the types of materials we treat with the goal to make new biobased raw materials.
WT: How long does the remediation process take? What can remediated trash be used for?
Mushrooms and fungi produce enzymes that are also able to degrade natural and man-made chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), heavy mineral oil hydrocarbons (C10-C40) and other toxic xenobiotics much like they might break down a tree.
Rodriguez: The process takes 4 weeks or less and the remediated trash can be used as soil-like biomass or compost all the way to things like insulation or concrete. The scope and scale of the reuse is being validated currently
WT: You have said, “Nature has always been my inspiration”. You were on a panel for Hillary Clinton’s “No Ceilings Initiative” representing women in construction. Please describe the journey that took you from a woman in the construction industry to a woman who took the concept of Biomimicry and flew with it to create your company.
Rodriguez: I guess you could say I wanted to stop banging my head against the wall because it felt good. I’d like to say that we had made great strides in breaking through that glass ceiling in the construction industry. But the reality was – and is —there is still a long way to go. I knew if I wanted to see the future in a way that was beneficial for the masses I would have to go out on my own to get it. I just was done fighting the same battles day after day. I’ve always said that it was up to me to determine my future, so I left and invested in me to start Myocycle.
WT: Transitioning from construction to concerned citizen, being invited to speak at the UN, starting a business – how did you navigate uncharted territory?
Rodriguez: I have always had a good reputation in my industry. Being invited to speak at the UN really came through my network allowing outreach to the right people. It is still a thrill to this day – the halls of the UN are really hallowed. The same as speaking on behalf of Hillary Clinton. These are honors and the gravity of the opportunities is not lost on me
As for charting the unknown territory of starting a business...this has come with a lot of bumps and bruises, as well as with a lot of support. I’m very fortunate to be based within one of the most active startup ecosystems in the world: Chicago. The resources that I have been able to tap into through 1871, Chicago Innovation, World Business Chicago, Gener8tor, and Argonne National Labs have been a lifesaver.
I went from a startup entrepreneur Googling “what is a pitch deck” to a start-up entrepreneur Googling “how do I set up benefits plans”. Different phases require different resources along the way.
WT: What were the motivating factors? What was your vision in starting Myocycle?
Rodriguez: My initial vision was to gain validation and understand the business – both sides of it. Our clients are our partners and have been key to unlocking the next step of the process. We currently are a team of 8 and growing.
WT: What challenges confronted you as a woman in a Green Tech business?
Rodriguez: I can’t really put a finger on the “one thing” that challenged us. The issues that a woman faces of that an underrepresented founder faces are systemic and deep-rooted. I work harder, have to be more knowledgeable, and face ten times the scrutiny.
WT: What stage are you at in your business? Any partnerships? What’s next?
Rodriguez: We are building and scaling right now. We have several completed paid pilots and by the end of the summer (2022), we will have close to 10,000 pounds of materials through our process. Next is to open a larger facility that allows us the scale parameters so we can measure and set protocols at the ton scale. We are hiring and expanding all facets of our operations as we convert our pilots to long-term customer opportunities.
We have a handful of global manufacturers that we are working with Partnerships are ideal. We know we can’t do this alone and we don’t want to. We are working across two complex industries so partnerships allow us to iterate the solutions more rapidly and with intention. The types of business that would be a good fit for partnerships would be companies like BASF, DOW, LaFarge, USG. Other great partners are those in waste management.
WT: You have received several awards. Please tell us about these. What has this meant for you?
Rodriguez: Yes, we have won a few awards. Everything from Global Health and Pharma Biotech awards to Fast Company to Forbes...these awards and recognitions mean another level of acknowledgement -- both of the problem as well as the potential solution. It means we are really on to something –not just a fad. For me personally, it is a validation to keep going. I don’t need the awards to let me know we are doing good things but they don’t hurt.
WT: Any words of wisdom for young women and men choosing a career path?
Rodriguez: It is so important that people know their crazy ideas may not be that crazy – be it career, education, company. Particularly for young women – hang in there and make your voice heard. Validate your ideas with those close to you, iterate and fan out from there.
Remember you own your outcomes regardless of what is thrown at you so you have to be convinced at your core that you are doing your best in any given endeavor. Your validation comes from within. The minute you stop believing in what you are doing is the minute you lose your control.
WT: Leave us with one last gem.
Rodriguez: Waste is man-made. There is no waste in Nature. Let’s be like Nature.
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