The 2022 W.E. Cornell cohort celebrated the end of the semester on December 2 with a presentation from Joanne Rodriguez, founder and CEO of Mycocycle, a startup developing a process for using mushrooms to recycle waste. Rodriguez shared her experience building a company and offered advice to the cohort.
Rodriguez started her presentation by asking the cohort to imagine a world without waste.
“Most of the materials in the United States as well as globally are never reused, are never resourced again,” she said. “90% of materials that we manufacture, on average across all the industries globally, end up as trash. They end up in the waste stream. As you can imagine, that’s a very big problem.”
Before becoming an entrepreneur, Rodriguez spent 30 years working in the construction industry and noticed problems with disposing of construction waste materials. She founded her startup when she learned that fungi have the power to naturally break down toxins.
“What I developed is a company called Mycocycle that would license a patent-pending process to minimize waste, create new materials, and reduce greenhouse gases using mushrooms,” she said.
Not only does Mycocycle’s process remediate waste, but the byproduct that results from the process can be rendered into new products for commercial or industrial use.
“Fungi are natural cleaners, they’re recyclers of our Earth and they’ve been doing it for centuries, but they also happen to be builders,” Rodriguez said.
Mycocycle’s fungal treatments process waste in three steps: first, materials are incubated with the treatment. Mushrooms then grow throughout the waste within two to four weeks. Finally, the fungi’s root structure, mycelium, can be made into a new bio-based raw material. The marketplace for these materials is worth $1.6 billion according to Rodriguez.
“I like to affectionately say that we train mushrooms to eat trash,” she said. “We work with different mushrooms with different exposures to different toxins and materials so we can generate opportunities for them to be very robust.”
Rodriguez initially formed Mycocycle in 2018 to protect the intellectual property of her idea. Because she was new to entrepreneurship, her first step was to join the Chicago-based LatinX Incubator, which supports Latinx and underrepresented startup founders. She accelerated the idea there before fully launching the company in 2020.
Since then, Mycocycle has grown to more than 12 employees, raised more than $3 million in funding, and treated over 10,000 materials. Additionally, Rodriguez was named to the Forbes Next 1,000 List in 2021.
Rodriguez offered the following advice and encouragement to the cohort:
- “Don’t fall in love with your idea. You can definitely get blinders on to some of the weak spots, and you might lose some of your nimbleness.”
- “You can have the best business plan, the best ideas, the best pitch deck, but at the end of the day, you have to remember that it’s going to come back to you as the leader of your organization and what your impact can be to really solve any of the problems that you get to.”
- “Really understand who’s going to buy what you’re selling to understand what it might take to go to market.”
- “Be confident. Trust but verify, and know your stuff.”
- “Who you align with is very important in an entrepreneurial journey. It takes a village to get after really, really big problems.”
The W.E. Cornell cohort will continue entrepreneurship education next semester, featuring presentations from more female entrepreneurs. Applications for the 2023-24 cohort will open in the spring.