You don’t want to think about how your favourite leather jacket, shoes or watch strap were made.
But the process — from the time it takes to farm an animal, ship it to a slaughter facility, prepare and then tan the hide — can take years.
In Brooklyn, a team of 35 people have found a way to create real leather in about two weeks. And their process doesn’t harm any animals.
Modern Meadow is a startup that has over a dozen patents and grows leather in a lab from skin cells that produce collagen, a protein found in the connective tissues of animals. That collagen turns into leather that’s free of blemishes, hair and fat.
For the past four years, Modern Meadow has been focused on research and development. Now, it’s raised $40 million from Nest founder Tony Fadell, Li Ka-shing’s Horizon Ventures, the “Zuck and friends’ billionaire fund” Iconiq Capital, Breakout Capital, Artis Ventures, and Singapore’s Temasek to bring its material to the masses.
“We are making real, fully biological leather here,” Modern Meadow co-founder and CEO Andras Forgacs told Tech Insider. That’s unlike most synthetic leather which is made from plastic and chemicals.
“[Making leather] is this really long process with a lot of inefficiencies,” Forgacs said. “You’re working subtractively, removing the hair, flesh and the fat [from the hide] … Instead we work additively. We just create collagen to make the material and that’s it.”
How to grow leather in a lab
Modern Meadow uses a process called “biofabrication” to grow pieces that look and feel just like animal leather. Forgacs describes biofabrication as biotechnology meeting material science and design. His team
works off of skin cells that have been programmed to produce collagen identical to that of a cow or another desired animal.
“We start with what leather is in its end state,” he explained. “We can produce cow collagen, alligator collagen — any kind of collagen using the tool kit of biotechnology. We’ve developed a way to organise this collagen to get it to recapitulate into the full biological structure of that collagen in hide that we then treat to become leather.”
After the collagen is grown into leather, it’s sent off to a tannery where it’s treated and turned into products you’re used to wearing, from purses to watch straps to shoes, belts and more. The company can control all sorts of things, from the thickness of the leather it grows to the elasticity and aesthetic.
The first time Modern Meadow grew leather successfully in a lab was four years ago, in late 2012. Then, it took about 2 months to create the material.
Modern Meadow’s leather isn’t ready for consumers to try yet. But the startup is partnered with some fashion companies and tanneries, and hopes the fresh $40 million will enable it to scale its process and make its leather goods available for purchase within a few years.
Growing meat without animals
Leather is a $100 billion industry, according to Forgacs. So his team is focused on tackling that for now. But they have tried growing other animal products in the lab, including meat, fish and poultry.
Prior to starting Modern Meadow, Forgacs cofounded a publicly-traded 3D bioprinting company called Organovo. At Organovo, his team was able to make skin models of things like fully-functioning livers and kidneys. Other companies approached him then about creating related materials, such as leather or meat.
“We were initially dismissive of those inquiries,” Forgacs recalled. But while he was living in China, Forgacs gave more thought to the consumer possibilities and reconsidered.
“I started thinking these ideas were not so crazy, if you can think of different ways of producing these animal products,” he said.
So, when will you be eating a Modern Meadow burger?
Not for a while, Forgacs says — although maybe someday.
“Leather being a $100 billion global market is large enough to keep us busy for quite a while,” he told Tech Insider. “I wouldn’t say [meat] is on the back burner, but it’s a longer-term opportunity.”
Here’s a Ted Talk Forgacs gave in 2013 about how his biotechnology works. The process to make a strip of leather then took a few months. Now it takes Forgac’s team a few weeks.
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