Real leather made without the skin of cows – or any animals, for that matter – is now one step closer to a store near you.
Brooklyn-based startup Modern Meadow, which makes biofabricated leather, announced Tuesday that it had raised $40 million, enough for the company to start transitioning from research and development to manufacturing.
"Leather, which represents a $100-billion raw material market, has always been prized for its beauty, functionality and enduring status," said Modern Meadow chief executive officer and co-founder Andras Forgacs in a press release. "At Modern Meadow, we're re-imagining this millennia-old material to create revolutionary new features without harming animals or the environment."
To make the biofabricated leather, which is biologically identical to leather from an actual cow, the company develops collagen proteins from living animal cells. That collagen is then structured into a material that replicates natural leather.
"Leather is essentially entirely made of collagen – organized collagen protein," Mr. Forgacs explained to Xconomy. "Our process makes cow collagen, without touching a cow."
The efforts of Forgacs and his team have been applauded by animal rights organizations such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which have long campaigned against the leather industry.
"Unlike leather, Modern Meadow biofabricated leather doesn't cause animals any harm," said Anne Brainard, a senior corporate liason for PETA, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.
Furthermore, she added, Modern Meadow's product is "environmentally friendly, disease free, and it does not deplete natural resources."
The biofabricated leather reduces waste by up to 80 percent compared to traditional leather, Modern Meadow says, as it requires reduced tanning and lower inputs of land, water, energy, and chemicals.
Even after the tanning process, about 30 to 50 percent of all real leather is thrown away because of imperfections or irregular shapes cut from the material, Fast Company reports. But biofabricated leather can be tailored in shape according to customer needs. Furthermore, designers can specify a preferred degree of flexibility, elasticity, and thickness.
Next year, Modern Meadow will roll out samples for partners in the fashion, sports, automotive, interiors, and luxury industries to be used to produce prototypes.
After that, the company plans to scale up production by 10 to 100 times, eventually reaching a full commercial scale.
In the meantime, one existing alternative for those concerned about the welfare of animals is faux or "vegan" leather, which can be produced from a variety of materials, ranging from cork to paper to glazed cotton to polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
However, experts warn, consumers who wish to be environmentally conscious should think carefully about what kind of artificial leather they purchase.
Pleather made from PVC was the industry's go-to material for many years, but has become less popular recently because of "production challenges and because they release dioxins, potentially hazardous chemicals, if burnt," Andrew Dent, vice president of library and research materials at materials consultancy firm Material ConneXion, told Vocativ.
At the moment, the most popular alternative to PVC is faux leather made with polyurethane, Dr. Dent said. But that comes with its own challenges, most notably toxic solvents.
Although Modern Meadow aims to "change the way we think about materials" with its products, the company's intention is not to "disrupt" the established leather industry, Mr. Forgacs tells Fast Company. Instead, it hopes to work with traditional tanneries that adopt advanced environmental practices.
"We're not about eliminating anybody," Forgacs said. "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."