We already have meat that's animal-free. Can the same marvels of science be applied to leather? 

The answer, if you ask biotech startup Modern Meadow, is yes. The Nutley, New Jersey-based company says it has developed a material, called Zoa, that feels and functions like leather, without the use of animal hides. The startup engineers DNA in yeast cells, creating proteins that it then uses as building blocks. It can arrange the proteins to give Zoa specific traits, which chief technology officer Dave Williamson says provides significant advantages over standard leather. 

"We can engineer our material to meet specific application needs," he says. "So we might avoid some challenges of the traditional material in terms of weight or toughness, or just make a very thin material."

Williamson says Modern Meadow's goal is to bring Zoa to market within the next year. The startup has been working with potential partners to design materials that match their needs, though Williamson declined to name those companies.

"Anywhere where leather is being used today, there's an opportunity to bring along another material with differentiating characteristics," he says. "So applications in auto or footwear or upholstery all represent really large, attractive market opportunities."

Father-son duo Gabor and Andras Forgacs co-founded Modern Meadow in 2011, borrowing from science they'd applied at their previous startup, a 3-D bioprinting company called Organovo. The 92-employee company has raised $53.5 million in funding from investors including Horizons Ventures, Iconiq Capital, and Nest founder Tony Fadell.

Of course, synthetic leather has been around for some time; shoes and apparel that look like leather but are actually made largely of polyurethane--aka "pleather"--are fairly common. But Modern Meadow thinks it can distinguish itself on the basis of performance and customizability, while maintaining a price point comparable to that of traditional leather.

And while leather goods were a $95 billion market in 2018 according to research firm Research and Markets, the company doesn't view itself as an alternative to only that material. "It's not just a direct competitor to traditional leather or synthetics," Williamson says. "We're thinking of it as a new material that can work in multiple spaces. Once we understand what the unmet needs are in a given market, we can go after it with a tailored solution."

Inc. visited Modern Meadow's innovation lab in New Jersey to see how the company creates its material from scratch. Check out the 360-degree video above for an inside look at the process.

Published on: Mar 28, 2019