Eben Bayer, CEO and co-founder of Ecovative, returned to the Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge last week as a member of the 2019 jury panel of international experts. Known for his mycelium-based bioplastics, Bayer has a long and fruitful history with the competition. His material sciences start-up scooped first prize back in 2008, making the US-based entrepreneur well positioned to advise this year’s winner. Ahead of the final, he discussed his keynote speech for this year's event, as well as tips for the 2019’s grand prize winner.

You’re delivering this year’s keynote speech - can you share what you’ll be discussing?

I’ll be doing a little bit of reminiscing. I have some photos from when I was a young guy; as well as recollections from preparing for the Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge final, and of course, the incredible experience of winning. I'll be talking about what that has allowed us to do in the world, and how we built Ecovative as a company. Winning allowed us to develop and launch our first product, and it enabled our first investment rounds. From my perspective, the competition remains the single best opportunity in the world to work on business ideas that combat environmental damage and climate change.

When we were funding the company in the early days, especially when we were still pre-product, there was really a gap in funding; there wasn’t funding in the capitalist markets to support ambitious ideas of this type. When we discovered the Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge just a couple of days before the deadline, we were extremely excited. We knew it was a long shot, but it was funding, and it continues to fund exactly the sort of projects the world needs: smart, ambitious people working on solutions to help the world.

Winning was transformative for the company; I don’t believe we would have made it without the Postcodes Lotteries Green Challenge. It allowed us to go from a good idea, to entering the market and shipping product, and on to this journey of building a business. The networking and exposure was incredible: we heard from people around the world that were interested in working with us. We also got to work with individuals within the Postcode Lottery and DOEN Foundation who ended up being great mentors and advisors over the years.

Eleven years on, what's changed in terms of the landscape and prospects for sustainability start-ups?

The awareness level around the world has gone way up. For instance, before when we would meet potential customers and tell them about our plastic-free styrofoam replacement they’d ask us why would we do that, what are the benefits for them. Now you don’t have that conversation. A cultural shift has occurred which makes customer commercialisation potentially easier. That said, it’s still tremendously challenging to build a business, acquire customers, and do product development. Having a more receptive cultural environment makes it easier, but it doesn’t make it easy.

You were on the jury panel again for this year’s competition - what are you looking for?

The jury process has a set of criteria that we use to evaluate. What I primarily look for is whether the team could have a major impact worldwide. I ask whether it’s sufficiently risky, and whether this is the best vehicle for it to be funded at this moment in time. That is to say, it’s something you couldn’t go to a bank and get a loan for. This is very special capital from an organisation that believes in people and believes in taking risks. I'll be looking both at teams’ capabilities, but also motivations - why are they doing this, how does that relate to their commitment level?

Based on your own experience, what advice do you offer the winner of this year's competition?

My advice for the winner is actually counter to the advice going it into it. To reach the final, you have to be really focused on your vision, know your story, and your potential. But once you win, you don’t want to believe your own hype. When you win a business plan competition, you really win a storytelling competition. Don’t get confused and think because you were validated for your story that you should then keep working on that same story. You really need to switch gears and work on what you’re building. As an example, the product we pitched on stage was an insulation board. But when I got back to the States we put our heads down and decided to do packaging instead because we thought the impact was going to be bigger, and it was more practical for a first step to market.