A small startup in Marquette called Myconaut is harnessing the power of fungi to save the world while providing an occasional tasty treat.
Saving the world is a bold statement; however, one of Myconaut’s primary goals is to develop technologies using fungi for toxin remediation. In addition, Myconaut educates on wild foraging and supplies wild and cultivated mushrooms
to local eateries. This includes supplying local brewery Barrel + Beam and their Northwoods Test Kitchen with delicious mushrooms for both food and beverages.
Joe Lane in the lab at Innovate Marquette SmartZone.
Ryan Iacovacci and Joe Lane lead Myconaut. Their company name reflects how their partnership developed and their ongoing journey. The root word “Myco” comes from the Greek mýkēs,
meaning “mushroom, fungus.” While the word “naut” comes from the Greek naútēs
, meaning "sailor; voyager.” Taken together, Iacovacci and Lane are mushroom voyagers, and their company is sailing into the relatively uncharted kingdom of fungi.
The two entrepreneurs met aptly enough while seeking Michigan certification
to harvest and sell wild-foraged mushrooms. Initially, Iacovacci and Lane focused on education and selling mushroom tacos at the Downtown Marquette Farmers Market.
“We just started hiking around, and we did a couple of workshops, just introducing people to fungi before it was really a buzz. Every year, it was more validating, like you guys should get into this. You should go deeper into this,” Iacovacci recalls.
This journey into wild mushroom foraging, education, and advocacy led the pair deeper into a largely unknown world. There are an estimated 2.2 million
to 3.8 million species of fungi; however, only 150,000 fungal species have been described to date (Hyde, K.D. The numbers of fungi. Fungal Diversity 114, 1 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13225-022-00507-y
) This means that more than 90 percent of fungi are yet to be classified, leaving a void in our understanding of this immense part of the world around us.
Iacovacci and Lane’s faces light up when talking about their early work as citizen scientists as they voyaged deeper and deeper into the fungi realm.
“Mushrooms are about as novel as it gets,” Lane says. “Going and finding lobster or lion's mane mushrooms in the woods. And I think that's kind of what brought us both to mushrooms in a lot of ways. The novelty and the uniqueness, and then figuring out how integral they are in all their capacities and capabilities.
“It’s a weird nanotechnology in a way,” he adds. “Mushrooms are this weird thing that you can train, that can produce novel compounds that do certain things. I think Ryan and I both … our own journeys through this, that was one of the things that really captured our attention and probably brought us together to do stuff like this.”
In March 2022, Myconaut was born. During that summer, they secured $250,000 in funding and, in June, retained space as a client with Innovate Marquette SmartZone. Myconaut is working to secure an additional $2 million in funding over the next year.
Located at 101 W. Washington St., in the heart of downtown, Innovate Marquette SmartZone provides not only the much-needed physical infrastructure with shared work and office space but also helps budding entrepreneurs with services to turn their passion into products and services.
“Without professional leadership believing in a startup idea, it’s very difficult to get that kind of mentorship and encouragement to take a business idea further,” Iaccovaci says of Innovate Marquette SmartZone.
Last November, Myconaut launched its research grant kick-off party at Barrel + Beam, a brewery in Marquette. The company had been invited by the National Science Foundation to apply for a Small Business Innovation Research Grant. These grants typically provide no more than $1 million in research and development funding. Myconaut’s research plan is to develop a process where fungi can be used for PFAS remediation.
PFAS (Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) are a group of synthetic chemicals characterized by a strong bond between fluorine and carbon. Because of this strong bond, PFAS is resilient and durable. These properties are useful in many industrial applications and consumer products such as carpeting, apparel, food paper wrapping, fire retardants, wire and cable coatings, and in the manufacturing of semiconductors.
The problem is that these chemicals are linked to damaging the human endocrine system per the C8 Science Panel findings as part of a class action lawsuit against Dupont regarding contamination at the Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, W.Va. (C8 Science Panel. Retrieved September 19, 2023, from http://www.c8sciencepanel.org/index.html
). A PFAS known as Gen-X, may also lead to toxins entering the brain by weakening the blood/brain barrier (Scruggs, Sheena GenX affects function of proteins that protect the brain. Environmental Factor (April 2020). https://factor.niehs.nih.gov/2020/4/papers/genx-effects
Michigan has created the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART), which is tasked with protecting the public through the identification of PFAS contamination sources and working with local health departments to protect people in areas impacted by PFAS. MPART was established by executive order under Governor Witmer in 2017 and became an enduring body in 2019.
Myconaut is working with the University of Minnesota and Northern Michigan University on research to determine how fungi could be used to break down PFAS, which has been absorbed by a plant such as grass or hemp. The fungi would digest these PFAS-laden plants and, in the process, detoxify.
“We're kind of specializing on the fungal part of it because fungi are masters of carbon chains, and this is another carbon chain. So hydrocarbons, you name it, they (fungi) code their genetics to develop acids and enzymes, uh, to break these compounds down,” Iacovacci says.
“Instead of just pointing fingers and everybody suing each other, How the hell can we actually solve this problem so that we don't poison the whole Great Lakes Basin and render it inert,” he adds.
The research funding kickoff for Myconaut at Barrel + Beam reveals the communal relationship between the two businesses. Iacovacci and Lane started as customers of the brewery. As they grew to know co-owner/brewer Nick Van Court, they bonded over a shared curiosity in fermentation and a love for the natural world. Ultimately, this led to collaborations where Myconaut and Moon Mtn (a farm owned by Iacovacci and his wife Amber) supply mushrooms, fruit, and juniper for use in beer.
Barrel + Beam brewer and owner Nick Van Court.
“Collaborating with Ryan and Joe has been a truly eye-opening experience. These guys understand not just mycology but nature, natural medicines, and also natural solutions for some big problems right here in Michigan,” Van Court says.
A new collaboration between Myconaut and Barrel + Beam is to develop a mushroom-based probiotic beverage as a non-alcoholic alternative for patrons of the brewery. This new beverage would also be leveraged as a fundraising mechanism for Myconaut’s research and development in PFAS remediation.
The Myconaut team recently submitted their grant proposal to the National Science Foundation. They hope to do so within the next six months to learn if their proposal was accepted. In the meantime, they are taking the initial steps on their journey to unlock the potential of fungi to detoxify Michigan. Along the way, they continue to supply delicious mushrooms and educate the curious about the magic of fungi.
Brenda and Chuck Marshall have been chronicling the beauty and culture of Michigan for over ten years. Their stories, filled with local insights and experiences, are published on LifeInMichigan.com. In addition to his writing, Chuck is passionate about photography and has become a prominent documenter of Michigan's vibrant music and craft beer scenes. Together, they promote Michigan one story at a time.