OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — “Welcome to the age of biofabrication,” said Andras Forgacs, the co-founder and chief executive of Modern Meadow, a venture-backed biotech start-up that has managed to “biofabricate” leather without animals, attracting the interest of major players in the global leather goods business, which is worth over $100 billion a year and produces everything from car seats to luxury handbags.
Traditional leather supply chains can be long and difficult to manage. The irregular shape of animal hides, coupled with scars and insect bites, can mean 20 to 30 percent of animal skins regularly go to waste. Unpredictable weather can also lead to price volatility. They also involve the raising and slaughtering the billions of animals whose skins feed the leather supply chain each year in a process that is inefficient, cruel and comes with huge environmental impact.
Instead, buoyed by a revolution in biotechnology, which has enabled scientists to synthesise new organisms faster and at lower cost than ever before, Modern Meadow has bio-engineered a strain of yeast that, when fed sugar, produces a fibrous structural protein called collagen, which is then purified, assembled and tanned to create a material that is biologically — and perceptibly — almost indistinguishable from animal leather.
“Human civilisation has been propelled by materials innovation,” said Forgacs, tracing the history of man’s use of materials from the Stone Age to the present. Quoting Apple founder Steve Jobs, Forgacs added that the next phase of innovation would come from “the intersection of biology and technology,” giving rise to what Forgacs dubbed “little biological factories creating whole new world of materials that blur the distinction between what’s natural and what’s synthetic.” The implications are profound. For the fashion industry, there are tremendous potential benefits, including speed, efficiency and “a limitless design space.”
While Modern Meadow plans to make the vast majority of its revenues by supplying other businesses, it has also developed its own consumer-facing brand for its materials: Zoa. Forgas said the name underscored his belief that “biofabrication is about celebrating life.” Importantly, Modern Meadow isn’t about leather replacement alone. “We want to make what we love about leather and go beyond that,” explained Forgacs. “It will be dozens or hundreds of materials. It’s an operating system to create new materials.”