Local entrepreneur finds innovative replacement for plastic products

(Photo credit Future Fungi’s Facebook) West Virginia University Institute of Technology student and Iranian native Nima Shahab-Shahmir, CEO and founder of Future Fungi.

It’s no secret that plastic is terrible for the environment. According to the New York Times, over 300 million tons of plastic is produced globally each year, and only ten percent of that amount is recycled.

Roughly seven million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean per year, causing catastrophic damage to marine ecosystems. Despite popular campaigns encouraging recycling and reusing, landfills remain overflowing with Styrofoam and plastic material. One local WVU Tech student, Nima ShahabShahmir, 24, has come up with a unique and inventive way to combat this devastating issue that affects everyone on the planet.

ShahabShahmir, a first-generation Iranian-American, founded Future Fungi in 2016, a research project/business plan focused on replacing plastic and Styrofoam with mushroom mycelium-based products. Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus such as a mushroom, and ShahabShahmir is using patented methods to create eco-friendly alternatives to daily used items out of the filament-like substance. The mycelium-based products are not only waterproof, but also flame retardant, shock absorbent, and lightweight. And, most importantly, unlike plastic products that take over nearly 400 years to decompose, Future Fungi products break down in just a few weeks.

“I wanted to create some sort of material that is actually beneficial for the environment, and also biodegrades to provide nutrients for the soil,” said ShahabShahmir. When the mushroom mycelium breaks down, it releases nutrients, making it especially eco-friendly. The versatility of the product is beneficial as well, as it can be grown into just about any shape or structure.

“Right now, we are on the first stage of prototypes,” explained ShahabShahmir. “At this point, it takes around one to two weeks to grow a cup/a planting pot, but we hope to speed the process up with later prototype versions.” Currently, there are three main products Future Fungi is focused on, including: mycelium cups, packing peanuts, and panels. The panels are surprisingly strong, and can be used to build a number of structures. Future Fungi uses patented methods to improve the mushroom substance and turn the material into a dense final product. ShahabShahmir says that Future Fungi has tested a variety of initial prototypes to increase the potential for one to gain traction in a real-world application.

These cups/planting pots are made from mycelium, and processed in a patented way that renders them useable for a multitude of alternatives to plastic. Photo credit to Future Fungi’s Facebook.

“Coming together and innovating new ideas, that’s the only way we are going to solve the plastics problem,” said ShahabShahmir.

ShahabShahmir originally started Future Fungi in his bedroom and designed the logo of his company in Lewisburg, growing the first stages of prototypes while simultaneously securing patents for his ideas. Since then, he has attended numerous business expos and other conferences to gain funding and support for his business model, starting with the New River Gorge Development Authority’s (NRGDA) Common Grounds competition in January of 2017, which he won. The $500 prize for his business pitch was just the beginning in getting Future Fungi off the ground.

Working through WVU Tech’s LaunchLab program, a startup resource center designed to help students develop their company and product ideas, ShahabShahmir has entered a multitude of different events designed for business startups. After scoring his first win with the NRGDA, he won a $10,000 business assistant grant through the Robert C. Byrd Institute’s (RCBI) Vanguard Agricultural Competition. RCBI also assisted him with product design and development, marketing, business development planning, and more.

Several months later, Future Fungi was included in a group of various entrepreneurs at the Robert C. Byrd Institute’s TEN50 Business Accelerator open house in Huntington. ShahabShahmir presented Future Fungi to local investors interested in funding entrepreneurial startups. Later that year, he was selected to pitch Future Fungi at the St. Louis University’s “Real” Elevator Pitch Competition in Missouri, where entrepreneurs are given a mere 40-second elevator ride with a potential investor to successfully pitch their business idea. Placing fourth in the for-profit category, he was the first representative from WVU Tech LaunchLab to be represented in a national competition. Even though he didn’t come in first place, ShahabShahmir says, “I have already learned so much in preparing for this kind of competition that I got really valuable experience just to get to that point.” That experience came in handy when he got to travel to the capitol in Charleston to present Future Fungi to West Virginia Senators and House District members for the 15th Undergraduate Research Day a few months later.

Then, in early 2018, LaunchLab hosted their “Show of Hands” Business Pitch Competition, where Future Fungi placed fourth in the Social Change category. Shortly thereafter, Future Fungi was chosen as one of nine semi-finalists in the Commission for Environmental Cooperation Youth Innovation Challenge, hosted by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) of North America. Out of over 200 applicants from Mexico, Canada, and North America, ShahabShahmir was chosen as the finalist to represent North America at the CEC Council Session from June 26-27 in Oklahoma City, OK.

ShahabShahmir is especially proud for the opportunity to represent the USA in this competition, as his family relocated to Lewisburg from Iran eight years ago, where he was born. He says his time spent in the large city of Tehran gave him a new appreciation for nature and protecting the environment. “I’m honored to have won this place in the competition,” said ShahabShahmir. Each winner has already been allotted nearly $4,000 for their business models, and will get to pitch a five-minute long presentation of their ideas to ministers and top environmental officials during the conference.

ShahabShahmir presenting Future Fungi at the Show of Hands Business Pitch Competition at WVU LaunchLab. Photo credit to Future Fungi’s Facebook.

There will be a live stream of the proposals available to watch at https://bit.ly/2GspWOc. ShahabShahmir will be presenting on June 27.

Through it all, he credits his LaunchLab business coach, Nora Myers, for her unwavering support. “She has been so supportive, always encouraging me. She always has a reason to push you to achieve your goals. She’s just an amazing business coach and I really appreciate it.”

For his next steps, ShahabShahmir says he has secured funding to move his prototypes out of his bedroom and into a specialized utility shed where he can expand and work on his second stage prototypes. He anticipates working on perfecting his production process while continuing to make presentations and earn grants. His Facebook page, @FutureFungi, has up-to-date information and details about new developments as his business grows. Donations can also be made through the Facebook page.