When Ben Deuling moved to Bozeman in 2017, he planned to get his Ph.D. in microbiology at Montana State University. He didn’t expect to be miserable. He also didn’t expect to become fascinated with growing mushrooms.
“I hated it,” he said of the doctoral program. “I wasn’t bad at it and could have seen it through but I didn’t care about what I was doing.”
But Deuling cared about mushrooms.
Shortly after learning how to grow gourmet mushrooms, he converted his basement laundry room into a fully functional mushroom growing operation.
“I would go in and stare at this thing I made,” he said. “It spoke really loudly to me. I went really hard into this and I haven’t done that in anything academic for the eight years I’ve been in school.”
After about two years of splitting his time between his Ph.D. program and business planning, Deuling’s Spore Attic has been operational since the end of November. His gourmet mushrooms have been sold directly to local restaurants and at the winter farmers market.
“It was so many coincidences and being in the right place at the right time,” he said.
After one potential business partner moved out-of-state, Deuling eventually linked up with Ali Moxley, who is pursing a master’s in sustainable food systems at MSU. She helped Deuling launch the business and apply for funding.
She has since transitioned to Spore Attic’s business development and marketing lead to focus on her graduate studies.
This fall Deuling and Moxley won a total of $10,750 in Montana State University’s John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge. Deuling and other teams pitched their business ideas to a panel of judges for their share of funding.
The money he won from the Ruffatto competition was combined with a Department of Agriculture grant, a pitch competition from last year and a fellowship award to get his business off the ground. He estimates it was a total of $30,000.
Deuling eventually shared his business plan with his advisors, who helped him transition from a Ph.D. to completing a master’s in microbiology last spring.
“They both said, ‘We’ve never seen this kind of fire in you. You have to do this.’” he said.
Early in his business planning, Deuling connected with the family who runs Three Hearts Farm, an organic farmshare in Bozeman. He said they were a huge resource, and he ultimately leased land from the family for his growing shed.
He planned to buy a prefabricated shed and convert it with the necessary equipment for mushroom growing. But it quickly morphed into building a facility from scratch.
Together with help from Three Hearts Farm, they built the shed themselves, which Deuling credits as being a huge money saver.
“As soon as I graduated, I slept for three weeks and spent all summer building this facility and working odd jobs to save money,” he said.
Having decided not to take on investor or loans, Deuling started his business with the $30,000 in grants and competition funds and what he was able to save over the summer.
The money from the Ruffatto competition allowed Deuling to hire his first employee to help out through the winter, which he said has helped him to step up his business.
He’s growing about 100 pounds of mushrooms per week in his 24x40 foot facility but the goal is to be up to 600 pounds in two years.
Spore Attic is supplying mushrooms to six restaurants, and is looking to expand to more. Deuling said he typically sells out at the farmers markets, and has started selling DIY mushroom grow kits too.
“The highlight of my week is selling mushrooms for those three hours,” he said. “It’s been a really hard two years and it helps make it feel worth it.”
Deuling said he has always loved cooking, which is how he first fell in love with gourmet mushrooms.
“If you’re a chef who knows what you’re doing, there’s all this new stuff you can do with them,” he said.
It’s also allowed him to use his training as a microbiologist in a creative way to “grow food and feed people a really amazing food product.”
“To grow these things, it literally is a microbiology lab and its what I’ve done for the last eight years,” he said. “Growing mushrooms is science.”