Andras Forgacs started getting calls from the last group of people he imagined would be interested in his company--fashionistas.
It was 2011, and he had just stepped away from his leadership role at Organovo, a startup that 3-D-printed skin tissue for medical use. It turned out, the fashion executives told him, leather is a gnarly industry. Livestock create one-fifth of the world's greenhouse gases, and an estimated one-third of leather hides produced end up in landfills. The demand for leather goods was booming, yet there were shortage issues, and synthetic leather alternatives performed poorly.
They figured if Forgacs could print human tissue, surely he could print leather. Unfortunately, he told them, he couldn't. But, says Forgacs, "if you're an entrepreneur, you find yourself eventually saying, 'Yes. I think we could do that'--and you figure it out."
Later that year, Modern Meadow was born, a Nutley, New Jersey-based biotech startup that grows animal-free leather in a lab. In late 2011, Forgacs reunited the original University of Missouri, Columbia team that invented the bioprinting technology behind Organovo (the university licensed it to the company in 2009).
Modern Meadow's four co-founders--Forgacs and three biophysicists, including Forgacs's father--initially filed for government grants to explore animal-free meat and leather. But early on, says CEO Forgacs, "we realized that those are actually very different opportunities and businesses. You have to pick one."
They decided to bet on leather, resulting in what's been a six-year journey powered by $53.5 million in venture capital. Zoa, as Modern Meadow's product is called, looks and performs like leather, but is created in the company's lab through a process of DNA editing that grows collagen--the protein in skin--from yeast.
Modern Meadow can custom-design the structural and aesthetic properties of the leather, whether it's stiff or stretchy, thick or thin, textured or glossy. The leather starts as a liquid, and can be poured into any shape or pattern, or even used as a glue to bond fabric. "Our goal is to create materials that are clearly leather but unlike anything you've seen," says Forgacs.
Since word got out, Modern Meadow has been approached by more than 150 companies in industries ranging from fashion to furniture to automotive. The 70-person startup's first partners include several luxury consumer-product companies, which plan to debut Modern Meadow's first commercially available products later this year.
Part of an emerging crew of startups operating in cellular agriculture--the pairing of food science with genetic engineering--Modern Meadow plans to appeal to more than just the animal-activist crowd. Leather, Forgacs points out, is a $100 billion industry--and one that has never really evolved. "At a biological level, it's definitely leather," says Forgacs, "but it's also about exploring new design, new performance, and new functionality."
How to grow leather in a lab.
Modern Meadow's strange science of creating leather from scratch takes place in a former pharmaceutical lab in Nutley, New Jersey.
Pivoting to collagen. Initially, the co-founders--Andras Forgacs, Gabor Forgacs, Karoly Jakab, and Françoise Marga--took skin cells from a cow and grew them in large quantities. This eight-week process, if scaled, would have required an entirely new type of manufacturing equipment. So instead, they put their effort into producing collagen, the main component in leather, which would allow them to utilize existing technology.
Brewing it like beer. The team gene-edited yeast to create a new strain not so different from the yeast used to brew beer--except, instead of producing alcohol, this one eats sugar and spits out collagen.
Producing leather in two weeks. The startup brews small batches in its facilities, but is partnering with a leading biochemical company to brew the yeast at scale in industrial tanks. Once the collagen is harvested, it is turned from a liquid into a solid, fibrous material. The entire leather-creating process takes two weeks, says Andras Forgacs, making it "much more efficient, higher quality, and more cost effective"--and much closer to competing with calfskin.