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Om founder: ‘It’s a very great time for all mushroom companies’

By Adi Menayang contact

- Last updated on GMT

Om was founded by integrative medicine professional Sandra Carter (left) and mycologist Steve Farrar.
Om was founded by integrative medicine professional Sandra Carter (left) and mycologist Steve Farrar.

Related tags: mushrooms

Om co-founder Sandra Carter has noticed a "dramatic change in the sophistication" of knowledge of mushrooms among natural product developers and consumers in the past 10 years.

Carter first started to see interest in mushrooms sparking around 2010, not long after the Dr. Oz Show aired a segment about cordyceps. Around the same time, binging on Ted Talk videos became au courant, and a talk by mycologist Paul Stamets about the ‘six ways mushrooms can save the world​’ reached millions of viewers.

Back then, R&D managers at trade shows and consumers shopping at health food stores were more likely to scratch their heads at the thought of using mushrooms in a smoothie rather than as a pizza topping.

Today, more consumers are buying powdered mushrooms, and product developers are increasingly incorporating ingredients from the Fungi kingdom​ into tonics, functional beverages, powdered sports nutrition blends, and more. Carter calls it a ‘Shroom Boom.’

Her brand of powders (labeled as "mycelial biomass powder cultured on organic oats" or "mycelial biomass and fruit body powder cultured on organic oats"​) called Organic Mushroom Nutrition​, or Om, has benefited from this Shroom Boom. It received a cash investment from Clif Bar’s White Road Investments and grew its distribution rapidly. It is now available in all regions of Whole Foods and numerous other health food stores, even beyond US shores.

“I was in London last year, and literally was walking down the street and saw this pharmacy slash health food store and turned my head, and there were our products,” ​she said.

“I think it’s all of a sudden we have this discovery of this kingdom of mushrooms, which is very separate from plant life. It has a much more similarity in DNA to mammals, which translates to a higher level of cellular communication,”​ she added.

Meeting a mycologist at a conference

Carter’s background is in exercise physiology. She has a Masters in that field from McGill University, and then moved to Los Angeles to pursue a Masters in Public Health from UCLA, and finally to San Diego for a PhD in preventive medicine from USC.

“I spent over 20 years in the disease prevention and program development area, both in corporate, community, and eventually as a hospital administrator in Lake Tahoe,”​ she said. “After many years of that, I was ready for a shift and a change.”

Om_product_group-1900x820
Om product line.

She regularly attends the Continuing Medical Education Scripps Conferences. In 2009, she attended the Scripps Integrative Holistic Medicine conference, where she was introduced to San Diego-based mycologist Steve Farrar.

“I became extremely interested in mushrooms and how they had applications to many of the areas of interest that I have had professionally, including sports performance and cognitive health, and immune enhancement, which of course leads to disease prevention as well,”​ she said.

This sparked the idea for a business. She attended a SupplySide trade show that year to do some due diligence and research more about the mushroom category.

“Without exception, every one of the major R&D people, or the head of sales, would say that mushrooms have so much potential, they’re so rich in terms of the research related to them. But they weren’t sure the American public is quite ready for mushroom products,”​ she said.

“Literally by coincidence, two weeks after that show, Dr. Oz did his first show on cordyceps. The stars were aligning to tell me to do something with mushrooms.”

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Together with Farrar, the two co-founders established a vertically integrated supplier of mushroom fruit and mycelial biomass called M2 Ingredients, all grown organically and processed in the San Diego area, as well as the consumer brand Mushroom Matrix, which re-branded to Om in 2016.

Lesson learned: Get marketing and branding experts

As Carter's consumer-facing business grew, she learned one important lesson about herself: "Prior to 2016, we had so much emphasis on the B2B side of our business with our M2 Ingredients, but I could see enormous opportunity in the retail space, and I also was aware that that wasn’t my area of expertise,"​ she said.

So they hired experts. Serving as CEO is Jan Hall, who brought marketing expertise from experiences working at GlaxoSmithKline, The Coca-Cola Company, Neutrogena, POM Wonderful, and immediately before joining Om, at Designer Protein.

They also hired Tom Tierney to head sales. He previously had the same role at Amazing Grass before its acquisition by Glanbia. "I can’t be more excited to see the growth as a result of all these experienced people joining our team,"​ Carter said.

What’s next for Om?

Om operates out of a 21,000-sf facility in Carlsbad, north of San Diego. This month, the company is expanding into another 12,000-sf to prepare for what Carter calls ‘Project Shroom Boom.’

“We are booming here, so we are really expanding on both our mushroom growing side and our retail packaging side. We’re vertically integrated, and so all parts of our business are going through the Shroom Boom project right now, which is exciting,”​ she said.

Driving this boom, mainly, is consumer interest for food as medicine​. “It’s a very great time for all mushroom companies because we’re seeing interest in the products,” ​she added.

Mycelium vs. mushroom

Fungal biomass consists of fruiting bodies (the part most consumers are familiar with) and mycelium, threadlike structures that make up a vegetative part of a fungus. Some suppliers may be inclined to harvest the whole biomass and grind it up and call it 'mushrooms' though the practice, when not disclosed, yields a material in which the bioactive compounds can be greatly diluted.

Read more of our coverage of the mushroom and mycelium space:

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