Story by Katrice Dustin. Photography by Carla Tramullas. Art Direction by Xavier Gallego. Produced by Mette Qvistgaard.
There is a floral, woody smell in the air of the MycoWorks production area, also known as the “bubble.” “I had no idea what mycelium was when I started,” says Miguel R., “but I was intrigued.” Now, suited up in head-to-toe protective gear in order to shield a living organism from their own human microbiome, he and his multifaceted group of colleagues come together daily at the crack of dawn in pursuit of beautiful sheets of Reishi™, a material that is fundamentally changing the landscape of the fashion industry. Through finely calibrated routines and respectful, tender relationships with the organism, the team has honed a new craft and expertise with unprecedented potential. These production worker pioneers have developed a brand new language as the world’s first generation of Fine Mycelium™ Experts.
These production worker pioneers have developed a brand new language as the world’s first generation of Fine Mycelium™ Experts.
Reishi™ starts as a bloom of mycelium spawn that follows an amazing journey of growth and transformation into a high-performance, luxury biomaterial. Working with this living network of mycelium offers an experience unlike anything else in materials fabrication. The first generation of Fine Mycelium Experts come from a myriad of backgrounds, and each new addition to the team is vital, bringing their own individual stories and life experiences. Upon starting their new positions, each team member learns a basic set of skills to ensure safety and precision, but the core of the working process is developed over time through close observation of and interaction with the organism.
These daily interactions are where the intimate bonds and new language are being formed. “You build the ability to read the small signs over time,” says Supervisor Lucas L., a former member of the U.S. Army who stood guard at the Clinton White House. By engaging all five senses, each team member forms a unique relationship with the material: “You have to be tender and gentle with the mycelium. You end up getting a better result,” says Sarah R. who, as a postal worker, used to deliver mail to MycoWorks before a team member suggested she join the company.
“You have to be tender and gentle with the mycelium.”
New sheets of Reishi are harvested every day, and precise moments in the life cycle of individual sheets can be traced back for constant fine-tuning of the process. The rapid growth cycles are essential for learning and striving for perfection in meeting client specifications, so growth metrics are closely monitored by MycoWorks biologists and engineers.
Lucas, a veteran on the team, reveals that in the early days, their work in the small lab that was once MycoWorks co-founder Phil Ross’s studio required an almost monastic dedication and heightened state of awareness. Within a well-established manufacturing system it’s the gradually learned ability to read the small clues that contribute to securing consistently high-quality Reishi sheets: “An earthy, humid smell is a great sign, and when a sheet has a squishy sound, you know that the mycelium has had great, robust growth,” shares Lucas.
“Everything is captured so that the data can be used for improving and customizing.”
Optimal sheets are celebrated victories, while imperfect sheets are opportunities to understand where process improvements can be made. Everything is captured so that the data can be used for improving and customizing. “I have never had a job that is so data driven,” explains Amanda H. who, before MycoWorks, was a grocery store clerk and volunteer firefighter.
Many reveal that life in the bubble is a far cry from the typical production job they had envisioned it to be. “I had no idea what I was getting into, but I immediately took a liking to the MycoWorks work culture and really wanted to be part of it,” shares Supervisor Ryan I., who started working for MycoWorks in 2018. “The mycelium is so mesmerizing… It constantly tries to outsmart us. I love that it’s a problem solving kind of environment—this work just doesn’t compare to anything else.” Team member Kevin V. agrees wholeheartedly with that sentiment, acknowledging that “it’s mind-blowing what we are able to do.”
“I love that it’s a problem solving kind of environment—this work just doesn’t compare to anything else.”
The Fine Mycelium Experts team ethos is built on the principles of open communication and respect, where individuals are always encouraged to share their opinions and observations. “In other places, we would be considered the bottom of the company, but here we feel valued and equal,” explains Vernon R., who has been with MycoWorks since the early days. Even as the team grows, this egalitarian team mentality means that every piece of feedback is carefully considered in the interest of constantly creating something even better.
MycoWorks is in the midst of scaling up operations: first into a pilot facility, then to a larger plant. Scaling up quickly in order to meet high consumer demand is quite the feat when working with a living organism. By introducing a new, tailored set of workplace guidelines entitled the “MycoWay,” Chief Manufacturing Officer Doug Hardesty is driving success by guarding the foundations of the team’s expert knowledge and craftsmanship, and bringing their carefully developed new language into this next chapter. He believes that innovative mechanization, standardization of work flows and a restructuring of traditional manufacturing leadership practices are the recipe for creating small batch, artisanal quality at a very large scale.
“Innovative mechanization, standardization of work flows and a restructuring of traditional manufacturing leadership practices are the recipe for creating small batch, artisanal quality at a very large scale.”
Doug has over 25 years’ experience leading rapid start-up of new manufacturing technologies for Fortune 100 companies. He brings his vast knowledge to MycoWorks built from leading design and implementing scale-ups in the food, dairy, drug and cosmetics industries, resulting in hugely increased client revenue and winning him numerous product design innovation awards.
“In the old manufacturing way, you would do the same thing a million times over the course of your career, because your boss told you so, and nothing would ever change,” he explains. “With the MycoWay, we offer 100% employee involvement and the capability to enact change to everyone. We give accountability in two ways: by teaching everyone how to problem solve and to measure if the suggested solution was a success.”
“We give accountability in two ways: by teaching everyone how to problem solve and to measure if the suggested solution was a success.”
In seeking out the best way of working, everyone is taught to analyse the collected data, so they can see for themselves if their efforts resulted in a change for the better or worse. The MycoWay is based on a philosophy of dedicated teamwork and a willingness to succeed at any scale, which Doug insists will be the ultimate key to maintaining extraordinary quality: “The emotional need to do the work is related to our company values. We all have to buy into the best way, not just my way, because we really understand it. No one at any level of the company can win individually; we have to work together.”
“Teams grow and turn over, but our core beliefs and expertise will always remain.”
Ben V. believes that this way of working results in the team’s real passion for their daily tasks. “Matt [Scullin, MycoWorks CEO] explained it well: ‘We have mycologists and biologists with expectations of how the organism will grow, and then we have people working hands-on with the material who have an observant outsider’s eye. The combination of these two types of experts is how we keep moving forward.” “We are all encouraged to share experiences; our opinions and observations are valued, appreciated and expected,” Kevin shares, while Sarah adds that the caring, collaborative spirit of the tightly knit group is a driving force in the success of the creation process—one she feels privileged to be a part of: “I consider my coworkers my family—they make me feel safe and we all help each other. There is a special ‘WE’ here.”