Mod­ern Meadow—all leather, no an­i­mals

An­dras For­gacs started get­ting calls from the last group of peo­ple he imag­ined would be in­ter­ested in his com­pany—fash­ion­istas.

It was 2011, and he had just stepped away from his lead­er­ship role at Organovo, a startup that 3-D-printed skin tis­sue for med­i­cal use. It turned out, the fashion ex­ec­u­tives told him, leather is a gnarly in­dus­try. Live­stock cre­ate one-fifth of the world’s green­house gases, and an es­ti­mated onethird of leather hides pro­duced end up in land­fills. The de­mand for leather goods was boom­ing, yet there were short­age is­sues, and syn­thetic leather al­ter­na­tives per­formed poorly.

They fig­ured if For­gacs could print hu­man tis­sue, surely he could print leather. Un­for­tu­nately, he told them, he couldn’t. But, says For­gacs, “if

you’re an en­tre­pre­neur, you find your­self even­tu­ally say­ing, ‘Yes. I think we could do that’—and you fig­ure it out.”

Later that year, Mod­ern Meadow was born, a Nut­ley, New Jersey–based biotech startup that grows an­i­mal-free leather in a lab. In late 2011, For­gacs re­united the orig­i­nal Univer­sity of Mis­souri, Columbia team who in­vented the bio­print­ing tech­nol­ogy be­hind Organovo (the univer­sity li­censed it to the com­pany in 2009). Mod­ern Meadow’s four co-founders— For­gacs and three bio­physi­cists, in­clud­ing For­gacs’s fa­ther—ini­tially filed for gov­ern­ment grants to ex­plore an­i­mal-free meat and leather. But early on, says CEO For­gacs, “we re­al­ized that those are ac­tu­ally very dif­fer­ent op­por­tu­ni­ties and busi­nesses. You have to pick one.”

They de­cided to bet on leather, re­sult­ing in what’s been a six-year jour­ney pow­ered by $53.5 mil­lion in ven­ture cap­i­tal. Zoa, as Mod­ern Meadow’s prod­uct is called, looks and per­forms like leather, but is cre­ated in the com­pany’s lab through a process of DNA edit­ing that grows col­la­gen— the pro­tein in skin—from yeast. Mod­ern Meadow can cus­tom-de­sign the struc­tural and aes­thetic prop­er­ties of the leather, whether it’s stiff or stretchy, thick or thin, textured or glossy. The leather starts as a liq­uid, and can be poured into any shape or pat­tern, or even used as a glue to bond fab­ric. “Our goal is to cre­ate ma­te­ri­als that are clearly leather but un­like any­thing you’ve seen,” says For­gacs.

Since word got out, Mod­ern Meadow has been ap­proached by more than 150 com­pa­nies in in­dus­tries rang­ing from fashion to fur­ni­ture to au­to­mo­tive. The 70-per­son startup’s first part­ners in­clude sev­eral lux­ury con­sumer-prod­uct com­pa­nies, which plan to de­but Mod­ern Meadow’s first com­mer­cially avail­able prod­ucts later this year.

Part of an emerg­ing crew of star­tups op­er­at­ing in cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture—the pair­ing of food science with ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing—Mod­ern Meadow plans to ap­peal to more than just the an­i­malac­tivist crowd. Leather, For­gacs points out, is a $100 bil­lion in­dus­try—and one that has never re­ally evolved. “At a bi­o­log­i­cal level, it’s def­i­nitely leather,” says For­gacs, “but it’s also about ex­plor­ing new de­sign, new per­for­mance, and new func­tion­al­ity.”

“Our goal is to cre­ate ma­te­ri­als that are clearly leather but un­like any­thing you’ve seen.”

New Skin Mod­ern Meadow’s an­i­mal-free bi­oleather, Zoa, can be grown to mimic the qual­i­ties of calf­skin, al­li­ga­tor, ostrich, or other leather tex­tures, at a price that’s com­pet­i­tive with high-end leather.

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