Biology students become award champignons with Indigenous-led mushroom business, MycoNutrients

Student in a biology lab.

Did you know mushrooms pre-date dinosaurs and even plants? Or that ancient Egyptians called mushrooms, “food of the gods” believing that by eating them, some fungi would lead to longer lives? It’s true.

Now Waterloo Science students studying biology and biomedicine are finding ways to merge age-old human fungi knowledge with today’s growing interest in health and wellness.

It's not a hard sell.

At least that’s what Evan VanderMeer, founder of Indigenous-led MycoNutrients, discovered in the fall of 2022. In the running for a People’s Choice award through GreenHouse, a social impact incubator at United College, he walked up to students and other community members armed with his pitch: “Hi, I’m running an Indigenous business. We do mushroom research and we want to make the world a better place.”

Not only did he hope to raise awareness for his company, which produces functional mushroom products intended to support well-being, the Biology student needed to convince them to vote for the company too. Sometimes the conversations lasted 30 seconds. Others took 45 minutes.

“But people were overwhelmingly positive. I think I had only three people who told me to take a hike,” says Evan now. “We had a great team come together and were able to talk to so many people about our idea and mushrooms. No one else stood a chance.”

In November 2022, the MycoNutrients team, which included three other students and was supervised by Dr. Bruce Reed, a professor in the Department of Biology, was awarded $2,500 and the $1,000 People’s Choice Award, receiving more than 25 per cent of the 1,200 votes.

Mysterious mushrooms

Liquid in a bottle.

Mushrooms have long been praised for their medicinal properties due in part to their hefty doses of protein, potassium and polysaccharides, which contribute to healthy immune function. In recent years, researchers around the world have even started exploring intriguing connections between lion’s mane mushroom components and neuron growth, potentially a step toward protection against dementia and Alzheimer’s.

But when Evan began investigating mushrooms himself, these new medical quandaries were hardly on his radar. Sadly, he became intrigued with mushrooms after his girlfriend passed away in 2017 from complications relating to autoimmune disease and his sister was diagnosed that same year. His sister, Kate, had an autoimmune disease that attacked her motor nerves, giving her less control over her hands and toes.

Even decided to go back to school at age 25 after years of running businesses and working in kitchens, choosing Biology at Waterloo so he could get a better understanding of the human immune system. It was his brother who initially thought of using mushrooms as a health aid for Kate, which Evan first balked at. At least until her nerve conductivity tests came back showing her nerve function hadn’t deteriorated. She’s now in remission, Evan says.

Taking it to the lab

Although his sister’s experience was obviously a clinical trial of one, Evan realized he wanted to know more about mushroom’s effects on biology and health — and how to merge Indigenous knowledge with today’s conventional emergency medicine. When he met Saira Hadi, a pre-med third-year student in the Biomedical Sciences program, before a shared molecular biology class, things started to click.

Saira says she plans to be a doctor one day and after talking about MycoNutrients with Evan, she knew she could bring practical experience to the entrepreneurial venture. Today, she’s the lab manager.

“I’m really good in the emergency medicine field and MycoNutrients is such a good preventative to those emergencies. They go hand in hand,” she explains.

Having top-notch science lab equipment in the Velocity Science labs has made all the difference.

Saira, Biomedical Sciences student

With the GreenHouse Social Impact Fund money, Saira is finding ways to create mushroom extract so users get a more potent form of the nutrients. She plans to use a distillation process to extract the nutrients to create a bioavailable form that can be readily digested, which is then dissolved in liquid. It is not meant to cure disease, but foster good health, she says.

Having top-notch science lab equipment in the Velocity Science labs has made all the difference. Working in labs since Grade 10, Saira still remembers what it was like walking into her first Waterloo lab a few years ago. She was blown away.

“I’m just like, ‘Whoa! This is much cooler equipment. At our high school we had one analytical balance for everyone to share,” she says. “It’s really cool going into a Waterloo lab and seeing all this new equipment.”

Support for Indigenous students

Student working in a lab.

University of Waterloo supports entrepreneurial science students in other important ways too. Evan admits to coming into university with big ideas, but with little understanding of business practices and structure. Forget design thinking and understanding customers. Those concepts were all brand new. To make his point, he rubs his hands through his hair so it sticks up at all angles. He calls GreenHouse, his “hairbrush.”

“They’re a really important resource and tool for students to get the funding and get their ideas off the ground,” he says.

So is the new Science Indigenous Office, which is embedded in the Faculty of Science, the first of its kind at Waterloo. It acts as a central hub for First Nations, Inuit, and Metis students, researchers, faculty and staff, along with allies — and tackles the thorny issues of underrepresentation and systemic problems. It will also start the conversation about how to incorporate more Indigenous knowledge into the Science curriculum.

Evan says that conversation is past due.

“True Indigenization means the integration of Indigenous knowledge with western. When we try to separate them, it’s just so unnatural,” he explains. “Western knowledge, eastern knowledge, and traditional knowledge — it’s human knowledge. And to put one forward as more valuable than the other is just plain wrong.”

True Indigenization means the integration of Indigenous knowledge with western.

Evan, Indigenous Entrepreneurship Co-ordinator

As for Evan, who is Wahta Mohawk, he’s now the Indigenous Entrepreneurship Co-ordinator at University of Waterloo — United College. He’s helping launch a new diploma focused on Indigenous entrepreneurship in fall 2023. Collaborating with other colleges across Canada, he hopes the new diploma will give Indigenous students wanting to pursue a business education with a more balanced view of what it means to be innovative. The focus will be on values such as reciprocity, collaboration, and generosity.

“I love innovation, but our communities don’t have clean drinking water and we can’t get healthcare or proper nutrition for our children,” says Evan. “We have bigger and more important issues than creating a coffee cup that heats your coffee to the perfect temperature, you know? At the end of the day it’s really important that our students feel represented.”


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