This Entrepreneur Is Growing Organic Leather Without the Cows

If you visit the Modern Museum of Art (MoMa) in New York City this winter, you’ll see a unique graphic t-shirt on display at the new Is Fashion Modern? exhibit. It’s not made from cotton, or a synthetic fabric like polyester. The material, dubbed Zoa, is “biofabricated,” and meant to resemble something like leather. Developed by a company called Modern Meadow, the t-shirt is derived from organic materials, but doesn’t utilize skin from cows or any other animal.

“Leather is one of our most ancient and beautiful materials, we love it. But we believe there’s a whole realm of innovation to be explored,” Andras Forgacs, the founder and CEO of Modern Meadow, told me on a phone call. “And to do it in a way that’s sustainable, that doesn’t harm animals.”

Modern Meadow is aiming to radically alter the leather economy, which has an estimated global trade value of around $100 billion per year. Forgacs and his team want to replace one of humankind’s most ancient materials with something not only new, but also sustainable. Leather is ultimately a byproduct of the food industry, but if people begin widely eating so-called clean meat, it might become more scarce.

“We’re on the cusp of biology and technology coming together to build a whole new engine of innovation for everything,” Forgacs said. “We have natural materials and we have synthetic materials. There’s going to be a third category made from the same building blocks of nature.”

Forgacs called me at the start of a busy day in December. That night, he was headed to London for the Business of Fashion’s annual VOICES conference, where he was going to present about Zoa and what we might wear in the future.

“I’m hardly one to speak about fashion as an authority,” Forgacs said when I asked about the conference. I pointed out that it must be hard to build a company focused on sustainability in a business known for excess and extravagance. He mostly shrugged the idea off. “Fashion is an incredibly self-conscious industry,” he argued. As consumers grow more conscious about what they wear, the industry will change with them, he said.

Read More: The Textile Designer Who Wants to Grow Leather in a Lab

Forgacs and his company are ultimately betting that fashion brands and their customers will want to wear clothes made from biofabricated materials like Zoa. Last year, Modern Meadow convinced investors that the idea was viable. It raised $40 million, bringing the company’s total funding to over $50 million. Now, it’s full speed ahead. The goal next year is to debut several pieces of clothing developed in collaboration with different fashion brands.

Forgacs doesn’t have a scientific background, but he has been working in the field for over a decade. After stints in finance and consulting, he and his father, Gabor Forgacs—an accomplished scientist— launched Organovo in 2007. Now a publicly-traded company, Organovo grows real human tissue in the lab for medical and pharmaceutical research.

“A lot of conversations began to come up about where we could take this technology,” Forgacs said. “Like If you could make skin, could you make leather? I was really intrigued by this idea: Could we take biofabrication beyond medicine?”

To grow Zoa, Forgacs’ team begins with a strain of yeast that’s genetically engineered to produce a protein identical to that of cattle collagen—the protein found in cow’s skin. Collagen is the main structuctural protein in all animals; it’s what makes skin strong and elastic. Modern Meadow isn’t the first company to utilize genetic engineering to create a luxury good. Similar techniques have been used to create new varieties of materials like silk, for example

“The way we make our collagen is we brew it. We developed a type of yeast that eats sugar and produces collagen,” Forgacs told me. The company’s lab “looks very much like a brewery.” Modern Meadow’s chief creative officer Suzanne Lee has experimented with making clothes from kombucha in the past.

What’s ultimately created is a customizable sheet of raw “leather,” that can be dyed, tanned, and finished in any way a designer pleases. Zoa comes out polished; free from the blemishes characteristic of cowhide. In the future, designers could even tinker with the genetic properties of Zoa, in order to optimize for one feature over another, like thinness or sturdiness.

Forgacs stressed to me that Zoa ultimately isn’t intended to try and imitate leather; it’s meant to be a new material entirely. But it certainly reminds you of the material.

“Some of the most exciting innovation is not when it’s about imitating the past,” Forgacs said. “It’s when it’s familiar enough that I understand where it came from, but then it’s also provoking me with something new.”

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