Mushrooms and knowledge nursery: the Innovation Fund taught us to value ourselves

Posted in: News- Mar 27, 2017

Ahead of a new public call for the Mini and Matching Grants Program, we are presenting our beneficiaries from the previous calls, from 2012 to 2014. We hope that their successful stories may serve as an encouragement to innovative companies considering to apply for the Innovation Fund grants.

The series opens with Ekofungi, bio-innovative spinoff from Padinska Skela.

 Mushrooms and knowledge nursery: the Innovation Fund taught us to value ourselves

Ekofungi, a spinoff from Belgrade, was the recipient of two grants within the Mini Grants Program. First in 2013, for the project “From Waste to Taste” (EUR 72,480), which introduced a new technology for the production of high-quality substrate for edible and medicinal mushrooms cultivation based on recycled cellulose waste materials. The innovation was developed in collaboration with researchers from the Faculty of Agriculture and Institute for Biological Research in Belgrade. The second grant in 2014 supported the “21st Century Food” project (EUR 72,580), a new mushroom growing technology resulting in an increase in quality of the mushroom’s fruit body, and significant reduction of harmful compounds during the growth. Due to the absorption of various minerals from the substrate, this new type of mushrooms has a much higher nutritional value and contains no mycotoxins which are harmful to humans.

Adult oyster mushroom cultivated on substrate made of recycled cellulose waste collected within 30 km from the plant. The innnovative substrate technology was developed thanks to the first IF grant.

Four years later, Ivanka Milenkovic, a biologist, project manager and owner of Ekofungi, talks about the lessons she learned and the ones she now teaches others thanks to the cooperation with the Fund.

“Thanks to the Fund, we transitioned form total insecurity to the point where we can evaluate ourselves the way we deserve. Money aside, this is probably the greatest benefit from this relationship. We found our true place. This sums up our development from 2012 till present-day,” Ivanka explains.

Ivanka Milenkovic, mushroom expert

She goes on to say that four years ago she would never had dared call herself and expert. This has changed because, thanks to the Fund, she received evaluation and the title of expert from others. Reminiscing on the evaluation process which she underwent with her two projects, Ivanka says: “We were in the position to be evaluated by open-minded people, with different mindsets and value systems. When you get assessed and get positive feedback from the likes of Prof. Gordana Vunjak Novakovic, an internationally renowned innovative researcher, it sets a benchmark which allows you to say, yes, I do top-notch work.”

“The bath” in which celluloze waste is turned into nourishing oyster mushroom substrate.

She appreciates having had the opportunity, on several occasions, to talk to Shuki Gleitman, the Fund’s  strategic advisor and international innovation expert. “When such a high-caliber person thinks that you are worthy of attention, I find that flattering. He is open, highly-professional and to me his opinion has weight. When would we get to know someone Mr Gleitman if it were not for our links with the Fund?”

However, she recalls being reserved towards applying, and missed the first call.  ”We were quite unique in what we were doing and we were no beginners, me least of all. I’d had many years of experience at that point and never thought of my work as anything special. However, we realized that if we were to articulate our idea and then present it in the right way, it should be good enough to at least get us eligible”, she says adding that it was clear right away that the Fund’s approach to projects was different from anything she had seen before. “In our case, this meant the following: we’d had a history in this business, we’d had good ideas before but never got to actually see them work in serious conditions. In cooperation with the Fund, our company was able to implement an idea and get the proof of concept, and find its place in the community of mushroom producers.”

Sure, you have to play by the Fund’s rules – which is part of the training, too, says Ivanka: “After working on a project for 12 months under the Fund’s wing, you are now left with a valuable experience and a chance to spread your own wings.”

Ivanka believes that many food safety standards stipulated by the existing laws are designed for an organized, conscious and knowledgeable society – something herself is actively promoting. A big subscriber to life-long learning, she also shares her knowledge with others. Ekofungi, which started as the original plant’s development unit, now has its own educational center. Five years after applying for their first Mini grant, Ekofungi has developed a portfolio with two main products: “One is our mushrooms, and the other our expertise. The latter is highly valued because it is based on our hands-on experience with the production. We are not consultants, we teach what we do, and what we do supports 12 families.”

The new technology supports intensive production of edible mushroom and processing of large quantities of cellulose waste. It is suitable for small farms wordwide.

“We teach our students knowledge that has been proved in practice, and they teach us the importance of broad education. Our workshop participants include economists, civil engineers, corporate managers, all kinds of professional profiles, but they all share openness without prejudice. This is something we willingly and consciously take from them. At the same time, our product has reached international markets. Our philosophy was and still is to have a small, expensive product. We are not after quantity. Our entire production rests on this principle. This means that it must be exactly what we say it is, as it say that it is, and in cooperation with our customers we have to learn that we are not the best, the smartest, the God-given, and that we have adjust to the demand of the market, which is harsh and picky.”

Ekofungi shares their know-how based on the Open Source model, which includes commercially based but very liberal placement of knowledge. “When someone is ready to pay for our knowledge, we then share it unreservedly. We consider it to be a fair and ethically correct approach,” says Ivanka.

All this positions Ekofungi in the framework of the so-called Blue economy. The founder of this direction is Ivanka’s longtime collaborator, friend and colleague Gunter Pauli, who promoted the idea that economic growth should be based on locally available raw materials, and diversity. He included Ekofungi’s productions and learning center among 100 positive examples in his 2010 book “The Blue Economy” – not only for being a successful producer of edible mushrooms but also as an example of a small business which has survived through tough times.

“All that was a big support to us, but it rested on shaky legs until we managed to tie up loose ends thanks to the Fund. I refer to, of course, the financial support, but even more so on the support in knowledge and logistics. I can corroborate this at any time with arguments and figures”, Ivanka says.

Ekofungi recently got certified for the organic production of mushroom, thus joining a very small club of organic mushroom growers worldwide. It is a specific production, because the raw materials must meet extremely strict requirements. “Yes, we got it a month ago. This is one of the outcomes of our second project with the Fund. Our idea is to almost completely withdraw from the local market. We will continue to supply old customers, but the organic product now gives us the competitive edge. At this stage we’re going to the market with a significantly more expensive high-quality product with a much higher profit margin, while the production costs remain almost the same.”

The interior of one of Ekofungi nurseries: the organic mushroom is grown on horse manure coming from nearby stables.

This business strategy, Ivanka explains, crystallized during her second project with the Fund. Negotiations are underway with partners in the United States, Switzerland and Russia.

Shifting towards the production of dried mushrooms revealed another benefit of Ekofungi’s cooperation with the Fund: getting to know other innovative companies, among them a producer of fruit dryers. “We first borrowed on of them, and now they are custom-making a second one for us. We’d never know they existed if it weren’t for our relationship with the Fund”, Ivanka explains. Their innovative product will be assembled at Ekonfungi in twenty days, which will enable the company to grow, cut and dry its product all in one location.

Ekofungi training center’s attracts students come from all over the world. The 5-day training is a combination of lectures in the morning and practical work in the afternoon. India, Spain, Ireland, France, England, Holland, Belgium, Croatia, Slovenia, Australia, India, Taiwan… Last year’s graduate from Sydney, a civil engineer, got an offer from the London’s “Heathrow” airport to grow mushrooms on used coffee grounds there, based on Ekofungi’s technology.

Part of the grant received from the Innovation Fund was used to cover the cooperation, throughout the project, with the colleagues at the university. Ivanka is certain that there is room for more cooperation.

Her advice to potential Innovation Fund applicants is – go for it if you already have the idea. “Second, apply with the team you already have, don’t go around looking for new people. Third, be absolutely clear what you’re idea is all about – and all that in three simple sentences. Only then will you be able convince others as well.

One of the most valuable lessons learnt from our work with the Innovation Fund is that innovation does not mean that you need to be a new Isaac Newton, or Nikola Tesla. Even a very small thing constitutes innovation if it solves some vital issue in a new way. You need to let go of the expectation to come up with something fabulous. If you have something that has helped you and could help others in your line of work to do things better, this is enough for a perfect innovation”.