A leather coat is growing in Brooklyn. Or something like it.
With a new investment of $40 million, Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn startup that is working on technology to fabricate leather in a factory–rather than skinning a cow–is now aiming to run its first pilot production by the end of this year. It also plans to double its staff to 70 people and is looking for a larger new facility in the New York City region.
The leather made by Modern Meadow is the same as real leather, but, according to the company, requires 80% fewer toxic chemicals to tan the hide and avoids the pollution, cruelty, and waste that goes along with raising and killing animals. Since its founding in 2011, the company has focused on an R&D process that involves culturing collagen protein from animal cells and then structuring it into a material that replicates natural leather.
“We’re at that point where the technology has been validated and now we’re starting to scale production,” says CEO Andras Forgacs, who cofounded the company with his father, Gabor Forgacs, a biophysicist at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “We’re able to make fully biological, real leather without killing animals or harming the environment.”
The pilot facility’s purpose will be to produce enough material to allow a variety of leather goods companies to prototype new products. Since Modern Meadow’s leather is designed from the ground up, he says, they can create a high-quality material with customizable performance properties. For example, it can be made stronger, thinner, or more flexible than traditional leather.
Modern Meadow is one of a number of early-stage companies using advances in biological engineering to create new synthetic products. Other startups are making real hamburger meat, cheese, egg whites, and even human tissue in the lab. (The Forgacs together previously started another company, Organovo, that is working on the latter.)
Leather, a $100 billion global market, may be easier to break into than these more highly regulated areas, however. Worldwide demand is growing, while the supply of high-quality leather shrinks because of the simultaneous worldwide appetite for more meat. Factory- farmeda nimal hides don’t always make for the ideal leather material.
The pilot facility will make enough leather a month to make the equivalent of a few dozen jackets. Once that’s built, Forgacs says the costs will “compare favorably” with high-quality, premium leather. Eventually, the next step will be to scale up production by 10 to 100 times, and then get to a full commercial scale.
“We’re very confident that we can deliver design and performance and quality at a better value,” he says. “But the emphasis is on value–it’s not like we’re looking to create something that competes on price.”
There is at least one major cost advantage for Modern Meadow. Today, even after the tanning process, about 30% to 50% of leather is wasted because of imperfections or irregular shapes cut from the material. Modern Meadow can create material that is tailored in shape and quality to what is needed by a customer.
Still, Forgacs is cautious about claiming he is here to “disrupt” any established industry–and it says it can work with traditional tanneries that adopt advanced environmental practices.
“We’re not about eliminating anybody. We’re about creating a new material capability that is exciting to the leather goods industry and is exciting to consumers. It offers them a choice and takes some of the pressure off the current livestock industry.”
The $40 million Series B investment is led by Asian businessman Li Ka-shing’s Horizons Ventures and Iconiq Capital, and also includes ARTIS Ventures, Peter Thiel’s Breakout Ventures, iPod and Nest inventor Tony Fadell, among others.
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