Student interns start mushroom business
August 4, 2020
Angie Mendbayar is bringing us back to our mushroom roots. Or, more correctly, mycelium “roots.”
Mendbayar is an intern with the Students2Startups program at the Alaska Center for Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship. She and her team study the medicinal properties of mushrooms to see how they could boost our immune systems and help protect us from COVID-19.
Before the pandemic, Mendbayar had been working with her startup partner, Taron Wood, on making mycelium-based disposable cutlery and plates. Like many startups, they pivoted. COVID-19 provided the team with the opportunity to look at another mushroom product — a locally developed, high-quality immune-boosting supplement.
“As the pandemic hit, we saw the surging demand in immune-boosting products and then saw that there were no local commercial producers here in Southeast Alaska. So we started on that idea,” said Mendbayar, who lives in Juneau.
Shortly after, Mendbayar was introduced to a fellow fungi fan, Meg Waite, in Fairbanks. Waite joined the team, and they named their startup Integrative Mushroom Solutions. Waite is starting her bachelor’s degree in microbiology, with a focus on mycology, in fall 2020 at UAF. Through their work with fungi, IMS aspires to deepen our relationship with food, medicine and the natural world. The team also aims to become a source of mushroom education and a catalyst for mushroom-based innovations as solutions to the challenges of our time.
No stranger to startups, Mendbayar was an Students2Startups intern last year with a California-based solar energy startup, BoxPower. She saw the 2020 internship opportunity and applied, this time to work on her own startup idea. Thus, she has borne witness to the growth of the S2S program, which is in its second year. Waite also applied for the program to work on IMS.
“Being a new program in Center ICE, S2S is a startup in itself and is a platform where students get a firsthand experience of where academia, science and technology meet the real world,” Mendbayar said.
Mendbayar is used to working remotely with people in Anchorage, Fairbanks and elsewhere. Communication is still one of the biggest challenges with a startup and COVID. “Texting can only go so far,” she said. The IMS team has regular check-ins every Monday and Friday, and, while the team does not set expectations on each other, they find as their communication improves they are seeing a better picture of what their short-term goals and tasks should be.
IMS has been reaching out to other mushroom businesses, and so far it has been informative and inspiring, “It just reminds us that we have a long way to go,” Mendbayar said.
Mendbayar has some advice for budding innovators. “First, don't get fooled or be caught up with the sexiness of being an innovator or an entrepreneur,” she said. “It’s not about being sexy and cool, but about making an impact with your innovation, and that is hard work.”
Her second piece of advice is to assess your impact and footprint and optimize those. The third is to keep your sense and the joy of creating value through what you are doing. For example, being paid by the hour for your work is not the same as creating a sense of value and worth through your passion and craftsmanship.
“I'm just learning to remind myself that having fun with the startup is as valuable as making progress and moving forward,” she said.
Students2Startups is an Alaska Center ICE program supported through funding from the Office of Naval Research. For more information on the program, please contact Nigel Sharp at firstname.lastname@example.org.