Welcome to Startup of the Week. A column highlighting BC’s most innovative and exciting tech startups. Today, we’re featuring Vancouver’s Foraged.
It happens that a startup can change the way we look at the world. That’s what Foraged is doing. It is proving that fungi are not just for eating, but instead have extraordinary and vast applications. The mushroom, in fact, can benefit our communities, as much as our diet. This unique Vancouver-based consulting firm and mushroom supplier is advancing research, understanding, and uses of fungi.
With a passion and knowledge that runs deep, Foraged is helping drive innovative solutions across sectors. Whether it is partnering with woodlots to create viable mushroom farms or promoting fungal research to answer our biggest challenges, including food quality, sustainability and food security, pollution, carbon emissions and waste management, Foraged is opening eyes to the possibilities that exist within the “kingdom” of the fungi.
Ali Ballantyne, Founder and Owner of Foraged, talks of the huge “shroom boom” that is happening right now, issues a call for partners who want in on the action, and shares the value of taking left turns in life.
Q: How would you describe what your company does to a Grade 3 class?
A: Foraged looks for opportunities to grow and design with fungi, a kingdom that has more species than any other kingdom and is genetically closer to us than plants. Through the discovery of this kingdom, we have found ways to produce food, improve our soils, store carbon, build furniture and create alternatives to plastic! Our company helps other companies innovate by providing knowledge on fungal growth and by creating the ‘seed’ that other companies and innovators use to solve some of our world problems.
Q: Why did you start your company?
A: Foraged was founded after years of working with fungi. My work was broad and looked at fungi through an agroecological lens, researching the effect of fungi on forest and land policy, and seeing how it contributed to alternative economies, both cash and circular.
While working in rural communities, helping to establish land-based economies around the wild fungi harvest, I saw a lot of potential to utilize community forests as “food forests” for mushrooms. This has been done in Japan for hundreds of years (Shiitake, Matsutake, you name it). The Lower Mainland needed a local mushroom supplier who worked with community members and professionals to help design their project and isolate strains that could do this job. I created the company that I could see myself being a client of.
Q: What don’t people know about Foraged that they should?
A: Foraged is actively looking for partners! We would love to help develop strains for any project – bioremediation, cultivation, or engineering.
Q: How do you predict or anticipate future trends?
A: It’s the shroom boom right now! There is an explosion of fungal research and applications which, for the most part, are very well received by the market. Anything from reishi leather, mycelium insulation, cognitive and immune boosting supplements, to home growing and psilocybin.
For almost any market you can think of, there is a budding innovative fungal component, all of which starts in the lab. The trend is growing across all industries, and combines industries. For example, my industry is primarily food, which follows health trends, consumer foods, gardening, and even industrial soil regeneration.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: Honestly, the fact that this industry is moving too quick to keep up with. It certainly keeps you on your toes.
Q: What’s the best advice you recently received?
A: I learned about the “hard left turn” from my friend Max.
I’ve recently changed careers, moving from being a forestry project manager to owning a mushroom farm and becoming a teacher. While I was thinking about transitioning, Max told me I was making a hard left turn. A right turn is pragmatic, it says, “I wasn’t making enough money as a bank clerk so I got my CPA to become an accountant.” A left turn is creative and inspired, (though may lack in financial security). A left turn says, “I really enjoy my job in project management and I am making really good money, but I am absolutely fascinated with fungi and want to collaborate with them for life.”
I think in these times, a lot of us are thinking about what we want to contribute to the world, happiness versus success (cross your fingers that you’re among the special people that achieve both!), and what sorts of things make us feel alive. I think it’s worthwhile to take more left turns in a world that really values the right turn. It is the left turns that often lead you to better destinations.
Q: Who are your heroes in real life and why?
A: Oh man, so many! Neri Oxman is certainly my idol when thinking about biotech. She is an American–Israeli designer and professor at the MIT Media Lab who is the queen of left turns. After the Israeli army, she turned towards medical sciences, turned left again to eventually get a degree in architecture, and left again to land at MIT in charge of a biodesign “Media Lab”. Neri Oxman is inquisitive, innovative, and does not follow the rules.
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