Illustration by Koji Yamamoto

This Leather Jacket? It Came From a Petri Dish

In a lab in New Jersey, the scientists at Modern Meadow are creating the materials of the future.

by Hayley Phelan
|
Apr 12 2020, 7:00am

Illustration by Koji Yamamoto

To visit the vanguard of fashion, one must first manage to find Nutley, New Jersey, on a map; then, a short drive from Manhattan later, after a right turn onto Ideation Way and up the winding drive, one arrives at a hulking, 72,900-square-foot brutalist structure. Welcome to the production headquarters of Modern Meadow, a start-up that has been quietly—and under top secrecy—perfecting a proprietary bioengineered leather that could revolutionize the textile industry.

Late last year, after I managed to wrangle a heavily supervised visit to the lab, I held in my hands the result of their efforts. Delivered to me in a manila envelope, with a reiterated warning that I not take any photos, was a 12-inch-by-12-inch square of the first generation of Zoa, the company’s trademarked material. I was one of the first journalists allowed access to the substance—and much of the company’s plans for it remain shrouded in mystery. It would not disclose how it intends to use the material—what products it might create or brands it might partner with. What I do know is that Modern Meadow expects to go commercial in 2020—and industry insiders are betting it’ll be big. Among their top-tier investors is Tony Fadell, cofounder of Nest, inventor of the iPod, and co-inventor of the iPhone, as well as influential firms Iconiq, Horizon Ventures, and many others. Here’s what else I know: Zoa looked and felt exactly like leather. Only it wasn’t leather. The humble stretch of material—which I soon began gently stroking under the slightly nervous watch of the company’s chief technology officer, David Williamson—was brewed in a vat of bacteria upstairs in the fermentation lab.

“I know, it sounds straight out of science fiction,” said Andras Forgacs, the start-up’s 43-year-old, Hungarian-born CEO, who, in 2011, cofounded the company with his father, physicist Gabor Forgacs. Before starting Modern Meadow, the Forgacses had another business that was even more likely to be found in a Star Trek episode: Organovo, founded in 2007, is a leading, if early-stage, medical and research laboratory that uses 3-D bioprinting to create human tissue: kidneys, livers, skin—you name it, they can cook it up in the lab. The organs, genetically identical to their natural counterparts, were used for therapeutic purposes (like a partial liver transplant) and for drug or cosmetics trials. Picture a lab with patches of human skin in petri dishes and human hair on racks; it might sound creepy, but with Organovo’s technology, beauty behemoths like L’Oréal are cutting down on the controversial practice of animal testing, while culling even more accurate data on how human skin or hair might react to their products.

With the success of Organovo under their belts, it didn’t take long for the Forgacses to begin exploring other applications for their patented technology. At the time, Andras was living in Shanghai and working for a venture fund, while maintaining his involvement in Organovo. Shanghai is one of the biggest manufacturing hubs in the world—and also one of the most polluted. While living there, Andras said he became troubled by the toll traditional manufacturing practices were taking on the environment, and began to wonder if bioengineering might offer a solve.

“I was having a lot of conversations around then,” he recalled. “People were going, ‘Hey, you’re one of the guys involved in growing skin—could you grow leather without animals? Could you grow meat without animals?’”

The answer was: kind of.

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The production process begins with a genetically engineered yeast that has been trained to spit out collagen as it ferments. Photo courtesy of Modern Meadow.

For the first few years of business, Modern Meadow employed the same highly academic, deeply scientific ethos that had worked well at Organovo. The company managed to develop a process that could replicate leather, making it nearly indistinguishable, at a cellular level, from the kind skinned off a cow. But they couldn’t figure out how to do it at scale. While Organovo catered to corporations and medical facilities that could afford to pay a premium for a highly specialized product, Modern Meadow wanted to create something that had the potential for mass consumption. In order to do that, they needed to cut production time—and cost—way down. That’s when yeast came into the picture. Actually, first came David Williamson.

“When David came onboard, we were a 15-person company, and he looked at our technology and he said, ‘This is great, this is really nifty—but we can’t scale because there’s no existing infrastructure,’” said Forgacs. That’s the problem with brand-new ideas: If you build a completely different kind of train, you have to build a new kind of track too. “Or,” said Forgacs, “we could set about developing a technology that could scale because the infrastructure already exists.” The kind of infrastructure, for instance, used in yeast fermentation. Then your brand-spanking-new train can slide right onto the tracks.

As Forgacs and Williamson patiently explained to me (ahem, more than once), the production process now begins with a genetically engineered yeast that has been trained to spit out collagen as it ferments. “We’re essentially brewing proteins,” said Forgacs. The protein is then extracted and turned into powder form—and here’s where things get really interesting. While the raw material can be treated and dyed to look like leather, that’s by no means the only thing it can do.

Suzanne Lee, who served as Modern Meadow’s chief creative officer for five years and now consults across the industry, as well as running the annual Biofabricate summit, explained some of her team’s earlier experimentations with the material. “If you have a powder, you immediately start turning it into a paste, and from there, there are so many possibilities,” she said. “We immediately started to think about things like liquid leather, or ways you could paint with it.”

Though she had been steadfastly researching biofabrications for years, Lee, who attended Central Saint Martins and was trained as a traditional textile designer, did not have a science background. Approaching it from a new perspective, she and her team of designers were able to dream up new possibilities. Soon, sewing machines were moved in. “There was everything you find in an atelier, but we were in the lab, working right alongside bioscientists,” said Lee. “Eventually, we were screen-printing with the material, we were painting with it. In liquid form, if we coated it with cotton, it could be used in place of a stitch as a kind of adhesive. Then it became a construction technique.”

“Hey, you’re one of the guys involved in growing skin—could you grow leather without animals?”

The options are endless. “What’s really exciting is that we can innovate at a molecular level,” said Forgacs. “We can dial in, at a cellular level, very different performance properties: We can make material stiffer, softer, more elastic, more breathable, more able to handle moisture. We can also dial in a lot of design and aesthetic properties: color, texture, pattern, translucency. In very future versions, we may even be able to embed electric functionality.”

Before I got lost in a daydream about a see-through leather jacket with built-in convection heating and an automatic buzzer that sounded anytime a man told me to smile, Forgacs reminded me that—outfit possibilities aside—what makes Zoa so urgently needed in the future isn’t its aesthetic qualities, but its environmental benefits.

After oil, fashion is the second most polluting industry. Synthetic leather is made from plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane that won’t degrade when they become waste products, and the petrochemicals used to make such materials are highly toxic. Even traditional leather can wreak havoc on the environment, as runoff from the tanning process pollutes water systems. It’s clear the industry has to change. But the methods suggested so far—using recycled textiles, swapping out plastics for materials with a smaller footprint, reducing the use of toxic chemicals—aren’t going to cut it. If we want to make a real dent in the damage we’ve done to the planet, we need to completely reinvent the wheel. Starting at the molecular level.

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"Leathers" made at Modern Meadow. Photo Courtesy Modern Meadow

Zoa will not only be biodegradable: The production process is actually carbon-negative because the glycerol source fed to the yeast “sequesters” CO2, pulling it out of the air. “Our materials start with a huge head start,” said Forgacs. “Not only do they not require the land, the animals, nor do they have the CO2 emissions associated with livestock and traditional manufacturing, but they actually take atmospheric CO2 out of the air.”

“I think biofabrication is going to be the defining material technology of the 21st century,” continued Forgacs. And that might wind up having greater repercussions than we could ever imagine. As Forgacs pointed out, the material innovations of the 20th century—the invention of plastics, synthetic materials, and semiconductors—fueled innovation elsewhere, effectively transforming our world. “Without those material innovations, you wouldn’t have your iPhone or your fleece or your running shoes,” he said. “They gave rise to the whole information revolution.” Biofabrication, which is only in its nascency, could open up a whole new world of possibilities.

In science fiction, when we imagine the fashion of the future, we tend toward the otherworldly. We think of portable jet packs and suits that can travel into space; we picture pressing a button and having a garment appear, ready-made for our use. In a 1963 episode of The Jetsons, for instance, daughter Judy tried on a series of outfits using a computer that projected the ensembles onto her via hologram. But our visions of the future often have a blind spot. The Jetsons is set in the year 2068—yet the mom, Jane, is still a homemaker, and there are no people of color, failing to reflect the enormous sociopolitical changes that have come to pass in the ensuing decades.

Similarly, the future of fashion is turning out quite differently than expected. Instead of looking out to space, the biggest innovators are instead taking inspiration from Mother Earth.

“I remember when I was first getting interested in textile innovation, and I happened to meet a scientist who was a biologist, and we just got to chatting,” said Lee. “I said to him, ‘I’m interested in what fashion might look like in 50 years’ time. What will the dress of the future be like?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know what it’ll look like, but you might grow it using a living organism.’” In other words, the dress of the future is more likely to be brewed in a vat of organic material than spat out by a holographic computer. In the end, that’s not too different from the kinds of techniques that our ancestors might have used to make beer or alcohol, which were, in their day, innovations of their own.

“We’re basically brewing ingredients and making materials from those ingredients,” said Forgacs. “And we’ve been brewing for thousands of years.”

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GARAGE is committed to ongoing coverage of the global climate crisis. Read all of our Anger Management zine here, and more of Vice's Earth Day coverage here.

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