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.