Editor’s note: This week’s spotlight is on Myco-Rise, a young Montreal-based startup that transforms organic waste into nutritionally dense and gourmet mushrooms. Not only were they first-place winners in the Small and Medium Enterprise track, they also brought home a second prize: the Food and Agribusiness Convergent Innovation Prize, presented jointly by the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (FAES) and the McGill Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics (MCCHE).
Dobson Chronicles contributor Charlotte Gauthron sat down with Marc Brettschneider and Louis-Philippe Dessureault for a long conversation about Myco-Rise, the McGill Dobson Cup 2017, gourmet mushrooms, and their vision of entrepreneurship.
READ ALSO: Winners of the McGill Dobson Cup 2017
On a sunny April day, I had the chance to escape exams for a day for a trip to the McGill Macdonald campus. It’s in one of the cafés nearby that the two founders of Myco-Rise met me for a long and rich interview about their business and vision of the world. The café was one they collect coffee grounds from: “We want to give back to the local community”, Marc told me to explain the selection of the place – a theme that would prove recurrent throughout our conversation.
Charlotte Gauthron (CG): Hello Myco-Rise! We are very happy to bring your story to the Dobson Chronicles readers! How are you both?
Louis-Philippe: We’re doing good! Things are going great, we’re moving towards a little expansion, so that’s going to be interesting. We’re climbing up the ladder, so to speak, and just trying to improve everything we are doing, the quality of our production, and our efficiency. Our main focus is on efficiency right now. And we are also preparing to have people come in, so that they can see the setup when it’s fully operational.
Marc: That’s actually happening in a few weeks, because we have an intern coming to help out during the summer. It’s our second expansion in one year. In one year, Myco-Rise went from my parents’ garage to a 2,000 sq. foot building. We’re moving in a few weeks! From garage to house, and from house to bigger facility.
CG: Can you tell me a bit about your respective backgrounds?
Louis-Philippe: As far as mushrooms and using worms to process waste go, I never actually had any experience when I was young. However, I’ve been doing vermicomposting for about 7 or 8 years now. I am really versed in the art of transforming organic waste into nutritionally dense, organic fertilizer. I also studied a little urban horticulture and urban food production. Producing food locally has always attracted me.
I figured by the end of CEGEP that I wanted to specialize in that, which led me to enter the Bachelor’s Degree in Agronomy at McGill, over at the Macdonald campus. I also worked for Dr. Valérie Gravel, who teaches several classes at Mac. With her, I learned how to manage cultures in a lab setting, and from then on, I specialized in soil and water resources. Fertility is something that comes close to my academic studies. As of now, I am still a student and will graduate next year , juggling with the company and my studies until then.
I took a course on nutrition and realized there is a fundamental problem: the population’s eating habits are very bad
Marc: I used to study marketing and finance at Concordia. I had a strong economics background. But I started to realize that economics wasn’t for me. I found it too cold, too dry. I took a course on nutrition and realized there is a fundamental problem: the population’s eating habits are very bad. We are purchasing food picked 5,000 miles away, not ripened on the tree, with significantly fewer nutrients that it used to have. I realized the existence of this crisis when I was in nutrition, and that’s when I figured I wanted to work in food production.
I found an unpaid internship in Horticultural Centre of the McGill Macdonald campus. I worked there for three months and ended up onboarding as a full-time employee. I stayed there 3 years, until I switched to poultry production, where I was exposed to very traditional, mass-production processes. Soon, I wanted to get away from this and try something different. I was curious about cultivating mushrooms, and started to leverage the people I knew and my friends at McGill to learn how to grow mushrooms. They taught me sterile techniques etc., and that’s how I got started.
CG: How did you guys meet?
Marc: We met at the horticultural center. I was working for the director of the center, and Louis-Philippe was working for Valérie Gravel. We sort of met there, there was quite a bit of overlap between our work, so we were helping each other out. We realized that we were really like-minded and that’s how, at some point, we decided to join hands and just go for it.
CG: So the mushrooms were just an interest, a curiosity that you had in common?
Marc: I think we were both curious about it, but I had already begun working on cultivating them. We had small cultures at home, experimenting with it.
Louis-Philippe: Neither of us knew what the other was doing, and found out by a mutual friend that we were both trying to grow mushrooms on our own.
Marc: I already had the garage setup in place at that time. When we saw that it was going down a serious path, we became two people dedicated to doing the same work, and it started snowballing.
We’re like alchemists, transforming waste over and over, and trying to find new uses for it
CG: In a few words, for our readers, what is Myco-Rise?
Marc: It’s an urban farm that engages in permaculture [“practices targeted towards the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient”, Oxford Dictionary] practices and really aims to be as sustainable as possible while providing food in a carbon-neutral fashion.
Louis-Philippe: We collect industrial and post-consumer waste and grow mushrooms off it. Once that process is finished, we process our waste through a vermicomposting system which allows us to reduce our carbon footprint and provides us with nutrient-rich fertilizer that we can sell to local grow shops, people that we know, etc. That is called vermiculture [“the cultivation of earthworms, especially in order to use them to convert organic waste into fertilizer”, Oxford Dictionary]. It is very versatile and works with about any kind of organic waste. It means that there’s not only the waste that comes down from the production that can be processed, but also any kind of organic waste that we get our hands on.
Marc: We’re like alchemists, transforming waste over and over, and trying to find new uses for it.
CG: You work with restaurants to collect their waste, but who do you sell your mushrooms to? Restaurants, individuals, both?
Marc: Both, but certainly we have one major client – the restaurant Carambola. The beauty with them is that they have this blackboard menu model and work with seasonal produce, grown local. Whatever mushrooms we have, they’ll take it and create a dish with it. It’s not on a contract basis, not a formal one at least, and gives us a lot of flexibility: it’s hard to streamline production, so having them adapt to our supply is amazing in this early stage.
Louis-Philippe: The rest of our clientele is mostly friends, family, and people from the Mac community. We communicate with everyone through the Facebook page. We can’t really keep up with the demand these days, it’s growing so fast!
We want to be as local as possible because we strongly believe in “voting with our dollar”
CG: Beyond being sustainability-oriented, what would you say are the values of your company?
Marc: For me, the biggest of all is the concept of local, in every sense of the world: locally grown, locally consumed, participating in the local economy, buying from local restaurant, etc. We want to be as local as possible because we strongly believe in “voting with our dollar”. For example, we work with the Macdonald campus students to design equipment for our production, even though it would be much cheaper to get it from a low-cost country. We want to give back to them: they built us. And just being local makes you more sustainable, because there’s no transportation involved.
Louis-Philippe: And of course environmentally-friendly! We want to provide alternatives to today’s production systems that are so detrimental to the world.
CG: What is your vision for the company? What’s your ideal scenario?
Marc: We’re still tossing around ideas. For now, we’re focusing on our short-term goal, which is our upcoming expansion. But we talked about different models, and where to take it if Myco-Rise gets really big. One idea we came up with is the concept of a modular system. The whole production system would be built in a shipping container that could be moved, sold to different cities. That would allow us to keep the concept of a local production, which is at the core of our mission. Keeping true to our values while growing is really important to us.
Louis-Philippe: Along with the modular mushroom production facility would also be a modular vermiculture system, as in our current facilities. People would be able to reproduce our system for creating their own fertilizer, which is essential to agriculture in areas strained for natural resources and remote parts of the world. It could also help with reducing and reusing waste, which is an issue in several developing countries.
Marc: Going further with that idea, we have started working with nutritionists to adapt the type of mushrooms that is grown to a specific area where there are identified nutritional needs, for example a widespread lack of vitamin A in the population. But there are a lot of options! In the short future, Myco-Rise will also start working with medicinal mushrooms, whose use is becoming very popular. Mushroom-based supplements are a trend that is slowly picking up. We haven’t done anything about it yet, but we have started receiving inquiries, so we might get into that as well.
Louis-Philippe: Recreational use of mushrooms, for example to make beers (not psychoactive mushrooms) or other beverages is another growing trend. Being able to cater to that type of production system would also be very interesting.
CG: Do you have any precise objectives you want to reach in the future? What’s your roadmap?
Marc: We’re taking it step by step for now. We will produce enough mushrooms to cater to the Montreal Greater Area market, which is already very large. And then, when we satiate that market, we’ll start talking about going abroad or producing those modular systems we were just talking about. Another thing is that we would like to become a carbon-neutral company. Every day, we look at what we are doing and try to improve our operations to reduce Myco-Rise’s carbon footprint.
CG: Is this your first venture, and do you think it will be your last?
Louis-Philippe: It’s certainly my first experience as an entrepreneur! I’m still in school, so I doubt it’ll be my last. I don’t know yet, but with Myco-Rise, once we have a standardized production and the right personnel to run the business, I might start something else! There are so many things to do out there, especially with the knowledge that we will have developed by then. For now, I really want to see Myco-Rise grow.
Marc: As for me, if I started another venture, it would probably be related to philanthropic work. If things really pick up with Myco-Rise, I would again focus on giving back to the community in any way I can. Maybe a non-profit.
Louis-Philippe: Yeah, I agree. There are so many things to be done in food security, for example. Even in Canada: up North the current situation is deplorable. If we had the means to address some of these issues, I would 100% go for it.
CG: Do you see yourselves asking for venture capital at any point in the future?
Louis-Philippe: No we don’t, because we don’t feel like this is a sustainable way to go. Besides, receiving money from someone but being obliged to fit with that specific person’s vision and values is not how we see ourselves operating. We really want to be independent and keep our freedom to rule our business the way we want.
Marc: That’s a good point. Independence is really important to us, and actually, we haven’t even gone so far as to open a company credit card or take on a loan. Everything started with what we were able to invest to get to that minimum viable product, and then we reinvested the money over and over, and that’s the way we keep going. We don’t want any overhead. It could endanger your business: if every month you have to make large payments and for some reason you have less demand, or a problem with your production, you can’t pay. That can kill a small company: it could go 100 to 0 in three seconds.
CG: On a different note, how did you enjoy your experience with the McGill Dobson Cup?
Marc: Well, you know what we are going to say… of course we enjoyed it! The McGill Dobson Cup 2017 took us out of our comfort zone, and made us work on a lot of skills that we had not really developed, like financials: we had to really go back to the drawing board and start making calculations. We learned a lot about our business just by participating in the contest: we didn’t know what our profit margin was, and other things like that. We only had time for production. The McGill Dobson Cup made us take the time to sit down and look into it.
Louis-Philippe: We also developed our ability to speak publicly. Pitching to the judges was a really good exercise and we have a lot more of experience of that now. We had to get out there and promote our business. Having to stand up for ourselves and our project, and convince people that it was worth… that was amazing. Meeting the judges and getting their feedback on Myco-Rise was also wonderful, we gained a lot from their opinions.
One thing about the McGill Dobson Cup that we found fantastic was meeting all our competitors and seeing all the other ideas people come up with
Marc: One other thing about the McGill Dobson Cup that we found fantastic was meeting all our competitors and seeing all the other ideas people come up with. Something we noticed is how they were all centralized around the same themes. Food security and sustainable agriculture were very present, and it was very cool to see that people realize that a crisis is coming and that local is the way to go. It shows that other entrepreneurs are trying to tackle similar problems. It was a mind-opening experience: we got to see that we were not the only ones trying to find solutions, but that many other people are working towards the same goals.
Louis-Philippe: It was a nice surprise really, because with the food and waste crisis Myco-Rise is trying to tackle, it sometimes looks like a “David vs. Goliath” situation where small companies trying to start up are smothered by bigger, well-established companies. There are a lot of up-and-comers doing good and making names for themselves, it is encouraging!.
CG: And what are you going to do with the money you received from your two prizes at the McGill Dobson Cup?
Louis-Philippe: We are investing everything in our moving out and building the new facilities, and improving the efficiency of our production. That’s essentially purchasing new lab equipment, building a large pasteurizer and other things that will help us scale up.
CG: What is your advice for young entrepreneurs out there?
Louis-Philippe: Stay positive, stick to your vision. That’s what will make you different from other companies, especially if you’re targeting a trend or a service that is just picking up. And be super, super persistent, because hurdles are going to happen at every step of the road. Don’t let yourself get discouraged if things go wrong.
Marc: Yeah, be persistent! You almost have to be wired backwards: every time a sign says STOP, you have to continue and take it as a challenge, a hurdle that you are going to have to jump over.
Louis-Philippe: Some obstacles are actually opportunities for you to improve your production, your knowledge, to look at things differently. But you need to have the right mindset, and to do something you really like, that you think is making your world better.
Marc: Another advice I would give is to keep your costs down when starting up. Don’t just buy things, try to work around them. Ask yourself “how can I get to that minimum viable product with the least amount of inputs?”. At the beginning, you don’t have the kind of cash flows that allows you to make mistakes. You need to be extremely careful about spending, and be resourceful instead.
Ask yourself “how can I get to that minimum viable product with the least amount of inputs?”
CG: Have you identified any real, direct competitors to your business?
Louis-Philippe: Not over the area that we are servicing right now, but there are several others in the world, and even in the Montreal area, like Blanc de Gris. They also grow mushrooms out of coffee grounds from cafés, but their business approach is really different from ours. For example, they had to borrow a lot of cash because they decided to get into full-production mode from the beginning, which is something we wouldn’t have done.
CG: And my final question is the following: what are your favorite kinds of mushrooms and how do you prefer to cook them?
Marc: I like the pink oyster. It has a low water content so it fries up very well. It tastes like a mix of bacon and seafood, and the best way I’ve had it served was deep-fried in a beer-batter, covered in Parmesan cheese and a balsamic vinaigrette. For the foodies out there!
Louis-Philippe: I would also go with the pink oyster, but harnessing its seafood-like taste by putting it in a paella… great stuff!
On my way back to downtown Montreal, French chemist Antoine Lavoisier’s famous quote came to my mind:
In nature nothing is created, nothing is lost, everything is transformed. – Antoine Lavoisier
Myco-Rise’s ambitious plans to tackle both the food security and waste management crises at once shows growing awareness among the population about the challenges that will be ours to face in the future. For an environmentally-minded student like me, it was a pleasure and a relief meeting people that find solutions to today’s problematic consumption patterns.