Lab-Grown Leather, Coming to a Shoe Near You

Lab-Grown Leather, Coming to a Shoe Near You

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Soon, leather will be much more environmentally friendly. Welcome to the new world of lab-produced animal products.

By Nicole Buckler

Many futurists predict that farming will be scaled back as more and more food production takes place in biotech labs. Scientists are on the case of feeding everyone across the globe. But what about non-food items that are made from animals? Will they get made in the lab too? The answer to that is a very definite YES.

While lab-manufactured products may be treated with suspicion by consumers, with overpopulation and famine looming, we might not get the choice to be such picky consumers. Soon, we won’t have the space for all of these animals we will require. Making animal products like leather in the lab will simply be the only possible sustainable reality.

A start-up called Modern Meadow is working hard to produce leather in the lab. If they pull it off, the process will make leather that is cheaper, safer and more humane than conventional leather. They plan to “print” the leather using animal cells. They will also make meat, so it means we may be seeing less cows grazing on the hills in the distance.

Leather printing in the lab means that we could live in a more humane world. But there are other benefits. The land that is now being used to run cattle could be repurposed. It could be repopulated with native wildlife once again. In Ireland, this could mean the return of native deer and other creatures on the brink of extinction.

The company behind this incredibly progressive idea – Modern Meadow – call themselves a “biofabrication company.” And if you think this is just a vague idea that won’t happen, you’d be wrong. Just recently, the company have secured US$53.5 million in financing, and that’s just for the leather stuff. The funding will enable the company to transition from research and development to manufacturing. Once the company perfect the method, the commercialisation of biofabricated leather will be next.

So how does Modern Meadow make this “real” leather in a lab? It uses collagen, protein and other essential building blocks found in animal skin to recreate aspects of traditional leather, including suppleness and breathability, while enabling new properties not possible from animal hide, such as improved strength-to-weight ratio.

“Modern Meadow harnesses the combined power of design, biology and engineering to change the way we think about materials, unlocking the capabilities of nature,” said Andras Forgacs, CEO of Modern Meadow. “Leather, which represents a $100-billion raw material market, has always been prized for its beauty, functionality and enduring status. Today, as a co-product of the meat industry, it is subject to fluctuations in availability, quality, price and growing demand. At Modern Meadow, we’re reimagining this millennia-old material to create revolutionary new features without harming animals or the environment.”

Modern Meadow’s biofabricated leather also reduces waste by up to 80% compared to traditional leather. Since leather is the tanned skin of an animal—such as cow, sheep or alligator – biofabricated leather, unlike animal hide, can be produced according to the size and shape required, minimising waste. Moreover, a biofabricated material involves reduced tanning and lower inputs of land, water, energy and chemicals.

Mike Harden is a senior partner at ARTIS Ventures, a company who has invested in the idea. “We take a long-term view, supporting ambitious companies that use science to solve challenging problems. Modern Meadow has exactly what we look for in a company: a talented team tackling a difficult problem with a differentiated approach.”

As for the meat side of it, Modern Meadows is well on the way to producing a printed steak. This process has been backed by investor and Paypal founder Peter Theil. His philanthropic foundation has just coughed up US$350,000 to fund the development of a 3D bioprinting process which aims to create an “edible prototype” of a steak. And let’s face it, a steak is a steak, you know it is going to be good, no matter where it comes from.

Welcome to leather of the future. It’s pretty exciting stuff.

 

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