How does a mushroom expert grow innovation?

Ivanka Milenković, a mushroom expert, has created an original mushroom production process that reduces energy consumption by 70-90 percent! What pushed her to be innovative? What is her view on innovation? I caught up with Ivanka to learn more about her innovation.

I’ve been extremely fascinated about innovative production processes, ever since I joined Kaospilot. I’m currently doing my 4th semester work placement with a mushroom production company called Ekofungi, located in Padinska skela, Serbia. Here, I’m really learning what it means to create and execute innovative production processes, on a large-scale.

Ekofungi is not just a conventional, industrial mushroom producer but one of the most successful, which also was used as a pioneering case in the book, Blue Economy by Gunter Pauli. The company now hires 12 workers and produces approximately 80 tons of organic champignon mushroom and 10 tons of organic oyster mushrooms, geared towards quality-oriented customers, which includes the Hyatt Hotel in Belgrade.

One of the main motivations for selecting Ekofungi for my placement was my interest in Blue Economy. Another important motivation was the quest for their long-term success in their industry. I found out that one of their strengths was their original and innovative production processes.

For people who wonder how unique Ekofungi is, I will try and explain some of their innovations.

What differentiates Ekogungi from competing mushroom producers is its production system. For example, one of their core innovations is the new process of sterilizing raw materials. The conventional mushroom farmers use electric machines to kill all the microorganisms in raw materials. However, their innovative process replaced the conventional machine with a microbiological process, which managed to reduce energy consumption by 70-90 percent. This energy reduction is not only a win for company costs but also a win for the environment. (If you want to know more about their innovations, please visit their website. )

You might be wondering, who is behind these innovations. They are invented by the founder of Ekofungi, Ivanka Milenković. She is an expert in edible mushroom production and also holds a Master of Science, in the field of edible mushroom science.

In that kind of environment, we NEED to be innovative to survive. Things can never go as we planned here in Serbia

As I deepened my understanding of their innovative processes, I wanted to interview Ivanka to learn more about these innovative ideas and get some inspirational insights:

It has been 2 weeks since I arrived in Serbia and started my placement at Ekofungi. In the last 2 weeks, I have learnt about the innovations in the production process. I am curious about how you came up with the innovative ideas and also how you realized these ideas.

“First of all, the circumstances of Ekofungi have forced us to be creative and resilient. Since I bought the land for mushroom research and production, I have faced all kinds of different challenges, and even today, we have to work through different daily challenges. In that kind of environment, we NEED to be innovative to survive. Things can never go as we planned here in Serbia. For example, the fuel price doubled a few years after we started our operation. We could not continue our business unless we came up with an alternative process. At that time, the business was in a real life or death situation. I desperately scrutinized each process of the substrate production with my prior experience and knowledge, and I was finally able to invent a new process. It wasn’t easy at all. I was confident that a new process would work as well as the conventional one, or even better, so I designed a new process and just implemented it. My confidence was based on my knowledge and experience as a mushroom production expert.”

Ivanka Milenković

How do you see innovation now?

“Innovation to me is the result of continuous improvement backed up by scientific knowledge. Most people cannot create something extraordinary from nothing. Innovation happens in the process of persistence and doggedness.”

Do you have a message to people, who strive towards being more innovative when creating a positive change in society?

“People probably have good ideas in their drawers. The brave ones take these ideas out and push them forward. In order to be brave, you need to have persistence even when you are met with obstacles on your way. I want to set an example and encourage people to be brave and take action. Also, a good network of people that supports you in your endeavor is extremely important. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of these people.”

When I reflect upon my thoughts on the topic, I realize that innovation has become the purpose of my thinking process. For example, I sometimes ask myself “how can I create innovations”. The question itself sets innovation as the goal. After having a series of talks with Ivanka, I came to see a different aspect of innovation.

Just like mushrooms, innovation is a fruit of continuous improvement, in the pursuit of your vision.

Written by Yukio Nakajima, second year student at Kaospilot

About the author

Yukio is originally from Japan. After working in the private sector for 10 years, he joined Kaospilot team23 to embark on a chaotic but fun adventure in life.
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