From vegan leather to bio fur: Growing materials from cells

Startups explore biotech to build sustainable solutions for fashion

in brief

Biotechnology applied to fashion has gained attention lately, with the launch of Miroslava Duma’s Fashion Tech Lab in Paris, and its startups focusing on cleaning up fashion’s act through innovation; but also with the recently opened MoMA exhibition on the future of fashion. Amongst the pieces showcased at the museum, a t-shirt with lab-grown leather parts, designed and manufactured by Modern Meadow.

Modern Meadow: growing leather from cells

The startup, founded in 2011, is a spin-out company of 3D bioprinting Organovo, founded by Gabor and Andras Forgacs, a father-son duo. While its focus is on developing and printing very small quantities of tissue for medical applications, Andras started thinking about how it would be possible to apply it to consumer products.

After 5 years of research, using design, biology & engineering, Modern Meadow now launches its own brand, Zoa, to showcase the possibilities offered by bio-engineered leather and foster the conversation around this new bio technology for fashion.

The Zoa lab-grown leather t-shirt is currently being exhibited at the MoMA.

Back to its beginnings, Modern Meadow‘s team looked to develop meat alternatives. But they soon decided to explore biofabricated leather instead (as compared to meat, the concept was rather unexplored). A great decision, when we know how the apparel and fashion industries crave for substitutes to build more sustainable products – see our sustainable series in partnership with Lenzing for more insights.

At the creative helm of the startup is Suzanne Lee, a pioneer of fashion innovation, who founded BioCouture prior to joining Modern Meadow. In the TED talk video above, given 3 years ago, the Creative Director talked about her work growing leather in a lab (from kombucha) and making clothing from it. Lee also happens to be the author of a passionating book Fashioning the Future (illustrated with pictures by Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones). Published 10 years ago, it explored some of the most advanced research at the time.

A whole new process to grow leather from collagen

At first, the startup used a process called tissue engineering, which involves raising the cells in a material partly made of a serum extracted from unborn calves. But the process was very precarious, as it risked to be compromised whenever bacteria infiltrated the cell growth process; and expensive, because of the equipment needed to protect it from happening. In addition, as the material was animal-derived, it prevented the startup to claim a vegan or animal-free label. Finally, as there is no real supply chain in place to source the animal cells or the serum needed to grow them, it made the whole process impossible to scale.

Modern Meadow uses a proprietary process to grow leather with collagen.

This is why, in 2014, Modern Meadow came up with a new manufacturing process: by growing collagen from yeast cell. It happens to be the fundamental material composing leather, as it is what is left after the hair, fat and tissues are removed from the skin. What’s interesting in this new process, is that it is highly scalable and thus allowed the company to drive down its production costs so that it is comparable with the cost of traditional leather. What’s more is that the liquid collagen obtained from this process is both large in quantity but also adaptable to various uses.

“Once we’ve purified the collagen and created this liquid leather, we have a whole toolbox that’s open to us, we can mold it or shape it into any form we like.” Lee said in an interview for Fast Company.

Like animal leather, the grown material is biodegradable, but it can be tanned and treated for more durability. It can also be dyed, and has the same particular smell that animal leather holds and makes it so distinctive. Furthermore, it can be grown in the form of leather sheets, or thick forms that could be used for bags and luggages, or even liquid or paint-like-form.

The Zoa shirt will be exhibited at the MoMA, as part of the Items: is fashion modern? exhibition opened through January 28th.

Could other materials such as fur be grown in labs?

Enters Vitro Labs, a startup incubated at the Fashion Tech Lab

Presented by Miroslava Duma’s Fashion Tech Lab, Vitro Labs is a startup working on 3D tissue engineering. They are currently working on BioFur, lab-grown pelts and leather from stem-cells. Lead by Ingvar Helgason, the startup is based in San Francisco and has not yet communicated much, but seems to develop materials close to what Modern Meadow is doing, with a hint of a future “sustainable fur”. As the startup has just been unveiled at the Labs’ launch event at the beginning of the month, we’ll hopefully learn more about them soon.

The researchers attached the 3-D printed hairs to a ring (Courtesy of the MIT researchers).

In the meantime, you can (re)discover MIT’s research on printing hair-thin structures, which could lead to new alternative solutions for fur.

This post was written in partnership with DEFI France, as part of its support to innovation and fashion companies.

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