WVU Tech student creates a mushroom-based solution to plastic products.
Take a swig from a plastic cup, toss it in the trash, and it’s gone, right? Not really. That plastic cup could take hundreds of years to break down in a landfill, if it ever does. Even in the ocean––where sunlight and warm water assist the decomposition process––it can release toxic chemicals and harm sea life. Luckily, one West Virginia University Institute of Technology student has developed a potential solution to the global plastic trash conundrum.
Nima ShahabShahmir is the founder of Future Fungi, a startup that creates eco-friendly products from agricultural byproducts and mycelium. Mycelium is the main part of fungi, forming a network of thread-like fibers that transports nutrients to the organism. ShahabShahmir, a WVU Tech student, has spent the past two years working on mycelium-based prototypes to replace plastic and styrofoam.
He says that, as a computer science major, he’s always thinking about new solutions to problems. When he learned about the non-biodegradable trash filling the oceans, he saw it as another problem to fix. “My solution was to turn to nature,” ShahabShahmir says. “That resulted in a product with a biodegradable nature after it served its use.”
ShahabShahmir currently has three prototypes: cups, packing peanuts, and panels. Future Fungi cups can decompose in a few weeks, as opposed to plastic’s few hundred years. The products even return nutrients to the soil when they break down, which could be a perk for farmers. And just because they’re decomposable doesn’t mean they’re not durable. Future Fungi’s patented process creates lightweight yet dense items that are waterproof, flame retardant, and shock absorbent.
Fungi may seem like an odd place to find a replacement for plastic but, for ShahabShahmir, it was natural. ShahabShahmir is a first-generation American, and his family immigrated from Iran to the United States about eight years ago. In high school, he hiked the West Virginia woods with friends and eventually developed an interest in mushroom hunting. He discovered the soil underneath mushrooms was solid, held together by the mycelium. That knowledge led to a pivotal question: “How can I change this soil into something else?”
The first prototypes were born from a combination of research and trial-and-error in ShahabShahmir’s Lewisburg home. The defining moment came when he created his first cup. “It wasn’t perfect but, having it in my hands, I understood my idea was possible,” he says.
To give his idea roots, ShahabShahmir collaborated with WVU Tech’s LaunchLab, a resource center for developing students’ company or product concepts. Soon he was presenting at business competitions and conferences. In 2017, he won a $10,000 business assistance grant at the West Virginia Vanguard Agriculture Competition, sponsored by the Robert C. Byrd Institute. In addition to the funding, the institute supplied year-long assistance with product design and development, business planning, and patent applications.
A few months later, ShahabShahmir became one of nine semi-finalists selected from a pool of more than 200 applicants to submit a full proposal to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) Youth Innovation Challenge. A panel of CEC council members and environmental experts evaluated the proposals and selected a total of three winners––one from Canada, one from Mexico, and one from the United States. ShahabShahmir won for the United States. This past June, he presented during the CEC’s annual council session in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
ShahabShahmir plans to continue refining the prototypes while pursuing his degree. “For a product to be introduced into the market, it has to be perfect,” he says. “Right now, I know the technology works, but I want to make sure it works every time.” Another business goal is to create jobs in West Virginia. Considering how much his idea has mushroomed already, the future is promising for Future Fungi.
written by Jess Walker