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Mushroom company first to set up lab at Cornell AgriTech’s new coworking space

The average consumer may not be familiar with the benefits of mushrooms, but that could soon change.

A company specializing in mushrooms is the first business to set up shop at Cornell AgriTech’s new coworking space at the Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture. Through their new lab operation, Empire Medicinals hopes to expand their commercial enterprise, forge new connections, and find innovative ways to utilize waste in the Finger Lakes region.

Henrietta-based company Empire Medicinals, Inc. was founded in 2015. They conduct business under Leep Foods, the company’s culinary brand.

“The original focus of the company was more on what we call medicinal mushrooms, but now we’re pursuing culinary mushrooms as well as medicinal mushrooms in the form of both fruiting bodies and mycelium,” explained Co-Founder Chris Carter. “The name tried to capture that we’re looking at the healthful benefits- beyond just the nutrition- that have been under-appreciated in the West. These mushrooms have been part of traditional Asian medicine for 2,000 years.”

I met with Carter last week at the Center of Excellence in Geneva, where I was able to look inside the lab and gain a better understanding of this new venture. He explained that mycelium is the root-like structure of a fungus typically found in soil. Mycelium can also be grown in a lab using the submerged fermentation method. Empire Medicinals utilizes the same fermentation process to produce two separate products.

“There’s the mycelial biomass that can be separated out, dried, pulverized, and then there’s the thick broth. There’s another product in the broth separate from the mycelial biomass that can be precipitated out if you put it into an alcohol tank,” said Carter.

The broth contains exopolysaccharides, or extracellular carbohydrates, which are exuded into the broth by the mycelia. This broth can be used as an emulsifier, or thickening agent, and serve as a food ingredient. The mycelium can function as a standalone product or as an additive to fortify other products.

Carter stated, “Our goal now is to make functional food ingredients. The mycelium will lend itself well to be an ingredient that goes into other products, like bread or pasta. We’re on the production of an alternative protein source- mycelium protein- that could be used as an ingredient in a meat analogue.”

Once developed, the company could also begin “delivering mycelium as an input to a person formulating a meat analogue,” explained Carter. In other words, Empire Medicinals could sell mycelia to be used as an ingredient by companies that produce meat analogue products.

Empire Medicinals certainly didn’t set up shop at the Center of Excellence’s new co-working space just to say they were the first to do so. To Carter, there’s value far beyond the physical equipment at the company’s disposal through the facility.

“This is a nexus of people. If you’re doing anything food, you can’t get better than this as far as food researchers, faculty that have expertise, the big test kitchen that’s got all that equipment that took millions of dollars,” beamed Carter. “This is a spot where you can meet customers. If we’re an ingredients provider, there are undoubtedly other big established companies saying, ‘we need a new ingredient that’s not animal-derived that has protein of this amount, but we want something that’s more than just protein. Got anything that’s protein plus antioxidants?’ Got some. Those are the benefits of working [here.] Beyond the infrastructure and having space in the lab, steam, electricity, and equipment. The bigger value is the people, the connections, the knowledge. That’s why we’re here.”

DiSanto Propane (Billboard)

The connections forged through Cornell AgriTech will be key in bringing Empire Medicinals to the next level. Carter pointed to AgriTech’s proximity to the Finger Lakes dairy region as another reason the Henrietta-based company expanded its operations to Geneva.

“We have a big dairy industry and a lot of it’s concentrated on yogurt, specifically Greek yogurt. In the process of making Greek yogurt, at the end after they lifted out the curds, there’s Greek yogurt acid whey, which is their waste stream, or slipstream. It would be a slipstream if somebody else is deciding to do something with it,” explained Carter.

Empire Medicinals completed a one-year research contract through FuzeHub on September 1, 2019. Through this research, the company made an exciting discovery related to making use of waste from the local diary industry in their own mushroom growing process.

“We showed the feasibility of one of the mushrooms that we grow making use of lactose in this abundant slipstream,” said Carter proudly. “We’ve proven to ourselves that we can make use of that abundant waste stream and use that as our nutritive fermentation broth to grow the mycelium. Somebody else’s waste stream is our feedstock, eliminating a problem in the environment. By putting those nutrients in a tank, you can make food, you put those food ingredients into other products, and you’ve helped close the loop on a circular economy of making the most of all the nutrients.”

You can learn more about Empire Medicinals, Inc. and Leep Foods by heading to the company’s website.