Growing animal-free leather in a lab

From the massive amounts of land it takes to raise a global herd of animals to the water supply used and the greenhouse gases released during the process, the production of animal products like leather is resource intensive. Andras Forgacs, Co-Founder and CEO of Modern Meadow, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how his company came up with an alternative by growing animal-free leather in a lab.

TRANSCRIPT

From the massive amounts of land it takes to raise a global herd of animals to the water supply used and the greenhouse gases released during the process, the production of animal products, like leather, is resource-intensive.

Joining me now is Andras Forgacs, co-founder and CEO of Modern Meadow, a company that's come up with an alternative by growing animal-free leather in a lab.

That just sounds impossible to do, because leather is animal skin, right?

So how are you growing the skin in a lab?

Thanks, Hari.

Good to be here.

I mean, if you think about it, leather is really just made up of a protein, collagen.

And what we figured out is we figured out a way to make that protein, collagen, without animals and then to organize it to re-create some of the higher-order structure of leather as a material.

So, our process -- we call it biofabrication -- we're able to use biology as, essentially, a factory to create our products, and as a result, we don't have to raise, slaughter, and transport animals.

Does it feel any different?

Well, I brought some samples.

Okay.

It's not meant to be a perfect imitation of leather.

It's made up of the same building blocks.

So, leather is, essentially, made up of just collagen, as I mentioned.

And this is made up of collagen, but because we make it ourselves from the ground up, we can actually control its properties, so we can make material that's thicker and stronger, so this is an example of something that's thicker.

We can also make it have different aesthetics, different color.

Oh, wow.

We can actually make it have a completely different aesthetic or roughness, and we can make materials that have completely different or new, if you will, physical properties, new aesthetic properties, and, frankly, new functionality.

It would take how long to get -- I don't know -- let's say a square meter of leather the old-fashioned way versus what you can do in a lab?

It's a really good question.

I mean, traditional leather, it takes about two to three years to raise an animal in the field, and then you have to transport that animal to slaughter, usually hundreds if not thousands of miles away.

You remove the hide from the animal, then you have to remove the hair, the flesh, and the fat from that hide.

And then, typically, those hides are transported halfway around the world to tanneries where most tanneries operate -- either in Asia or in Latin America -- and then many more steps of chemistry are applied.

And at the end of that process, about 30 to 50% of the material is often wasted, if not more, because of irregular shapes and sizes of the hides or scars and insect bites -- you know, all the imperfections in the material.

By contrast, our process takes less than two weeks, and the beauty of it is that you can actually localize production, so we can produce the collagen at great efficient scale in production facilities around the world, and then we can transport that collagen to where we would convert it into our materials right next to where you'd want to use the materials and products, where you'd want to make the shoes, the bags, the furniture.

Where does this stack up -- you know, 'genuine' leather versus synthetic leather?

Is this a different type of synthesis because it's biological?

Yeah, it's a good question.

So, there's a lot of beauty in traditional leather, and there's a lot of great performance advantages in synthetic materials.

This is a third category.

It's biofabricated.

It's really the best of what we can get from nature enhanced with the ingenuity and creativity of what mankind can do.

So, unlike naturally derived materials that are harvested or mined or farmed, and unlike synthetic materials that are made from petrochemicals and that have usually an unfavorable environmental footprint, this has the best of both worlds.

You had a background that included biofabricating body parts.

[ Chuckles ] Is there something that you learned from that process that you were able to figure out and make this more efficient?

That's what gave us the confidence to even pursue this as an idea.

So, the first biotech company, that I co-founded 3D-printed human tissue for medical research and eventually medical therapy.

And we figured if we can grow little human livers and kidneys that can be used by pharmaceutical companies to test and develop new drugs, if we can grow tissue models -- sorry, skin models that can be used by cosmetic companies to develop their products, then how could that kind of technology be used potentially beyond medicine?

And that was the seed that led to the idea behind Modern Meadow.

We've moved far away from the kind of technology that's practiced to do that.

So this is a different technology, but it does fall under that broad umbrella of biofabrication.

When are we going to see this on a store shelf?

What's the next step?

Well, we're excited to be in the Museum of Modern Art exhibit on fashion.

That's going on this fall, and that's where we're showing our first prototype product, and that's a very exciting step for us.

And then, within the coming year or so, we're going to be showing up with our partner brands.

So, let's say I go to a store next summer.

Is there going to be a distinct difference?

I mean, are you going to be selling me the idea that you can have the benefits of leather without any of the ethical costs and dilemmas?

It has to have a benefit that's tangible and perceptible to the consumer, so the product has to be better in some way relating to design, performance, or functionality.

And it has to be ethically superior, so what motivates us as a company is to make products that are better in a better way, right -- that have benefits for the consumer and the planet.

But if the benefit is just for the planet, it's necessary but not sufficient, in our opinion.

So, is there something -- are there things that a designer or a manufacturer can do with this leather that they couldn't do very easily with leather that we're used to?

Yes.

The way we even can construct with this material allows us to do things that you couldn't do with traditional leather.

We're not constrained by size or shape.

We can also control its physical properties in a way that goes beyond what traditional leather can do.

We can make materials that are thinner or thicker.

We can make materials that have different physical properties in terms of elasticity or strength.

You're describing the stuff of superhero suits.

You realize that, right?

Well...

[ Laughs ]

The design possibilities and the innovation possibilities here are, frankly, endless.

And that's actually one of the challenges.

Andras Forgacs, CEO of Modern Meadow, thanks for joining us.

Thank you very much, Hari.

Great to be here.