Spring 2014

[Alumni News]

Sue Van Hook

Fungi Innovator Breaks the Mold

Sue Van Hook

From the medicinal to the edible, mushrooms are known for having a variety of uses. Now, add to that something you probably never considered: environmentally friendly building and packing material.

Sue Van Hook (’77, Botany, ’85, M.A. Biology) is chief mycologist for Ecovative, a New York company that’s developed an innovative way to turn backyard fungi into biodegradable material.

The secret? Combining mushroom mycelium with agricultural waste such as plant stalks and seed husks. In a process akin to fusion, the mycelium of the mushrooms naturally bind to the agricultural waste, creating a solid block of material.

The result? A durable, cost-competitive alternative to conventional plastic and Styrofoam that can be molded into anything from insulation, to car bumpers to surfboards. “It’s the natural, renewable alternative to synthetic material,” Van Hook says.

At Ecovative, Van Hook is responsible for collecting, preserving and harvesting mushroom species for daily use. She also participates in the research and development of new products and educates Ecovative employees and the public about the types and properties of fungi. “My purpose on this planet is fungi,” she says.

But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, Van Hook transferred to HSU her sophomore year with no direction. That all changed when she took a class with Professor David Largent, who helped develop HSU’s Botany program and the university’s specialization in mycology. “He took me under his wing and fostered my interest in mushrooms,” she says.

In the five years since its founding, Ecovative has earned numerous industry awards, licensed its protective packaging to Sealed Air, and broken the mold with things like its Tiny House—with insulation grown of mushrooms—and the world’s first mushroom surfboard.

For Van Hook, nothing beats working for a company that’s literally changing the way business is done. “We have a triple bottom line—people, planet and profit,” she says.