What is leather? It may seem a strange question to ask, but how might a material with the qualities and appearance of hide that wasn’t actually taken from an animal be described? With new bio-fabrication techniques shaping up to change the rules of the game, this issue has suddenly become pressing.

The annual leather raw materials market is rated at about $100 billion. Synthetics are already worth half that, and demand will keep rising sharply as disposable income, and the desire for luxury goods in markets such as China and India grows. In this context, there is rich potential for new, laboratory-grown products, not only because they could reduce reliance on the meat industry but also because there will be increasing demand for a reliable and sustainable source of material.

This is the opportunity facing Modern Meadow, which produces animal-friendly, bio-fabricated materials that can be made in any size, shape and design. The material has none of the defects found in hides, so there is great potential to reduce waste. Furthermore, it only requires a part of the traditional tanning process to preserves the skin against decay, make it supple and create the desired finish. There is no need for a skin to be stripped of any hair, flesh and fat in a chemically intensive process. At Modern Meadow, only the final preservation and treatment of the material is required to achieve suppleness and finish, so there is a reduction in the use of water, energy and chemicals.

“The world has a love affair with leather, but Modern Meadow’s technology allows it to engineer material for specific uses,” says chief technology officer David Williamson. “That is hard to do with leather, because you are constrained by the starting material. Modern Meadow can go further than the qualities of leather, as its technology develops over time, and the company has learned to engineer different types of material.”

The world has a love affair with leather, but Modern Meadow’s technology allows it to engineer material for specific uses.

Williamson, who holds a PhD in chemistry, and has a wealth of experience in chemical and biotechnology research, thinks that Modern Meadow has the potential to revolutionise the industry, even though what it makes cannot strictly be called ‘leather’.

“It is fair to say that it competes with leather, but the company is not constrained by talking about its product as if it is leather,” he continues. “There is a process of evolution in how the product is defined. Modern Meadow is aware of the regulations that cover this matter and understands that leather can be defined as a material derived from a hide or skin, so the product is not called leather. It is currently referred to as a ‘bio-fabricated leather material’, but what it will ultimately be called has not yet been decided, as it involves a complex field of definitions. Modern Meadow is coming close to a name and wants something that will celebrate the uniqueness of its material.”

Laboratory born, industry bred

The laboratory process by which Modern Meadow produces its material (see ‘The building blocks of bio-fabrication’, right) opens up a new vista of opportunity in terms of the qualities of the product. The company envisages a time when the strength of kangaroo leather can be combined with the delicacy of snakeskin, or the look of crocodile-skin applied to a material with the suppleness of lambskin. The qualities of the product are dependent on the animal DNA chosen for bio-fabrication.

Since discussing the process of growing leather without an animal at the Society of Leather Technologists and Chemists (SLTC) conference this year, Modern Meadow has gained more insight into what the industry and its customers might want from bio-fabrication.

“A lot has been learned since then,” says Williamson. “There is evolution in Modern Meadow’s thinking through a daily process of talking and listening to people. It has become clear in the past two years that the market is looking for two things.

“Firstly, there is a desire for a complete and identical replacement product for leather. Secondly, and more frequently, there is a need for a new material that references leather but has different properties to suit specific purposes. With the latter, the idea is to have something that complements leather.”

A pivotal factor of Modern Meadow’s development will be its collaboration with tanners for mutual benefit.

“The company wants to elevate another material into the global market as an alternative material supply for tanneries to process with existing infrastructure,” continues Williamson.

“Its products can be used as a more standardised material for tanners who need a consistent product. So far, there has been a positive response from its channel partners, with more than 140 companies working with Modern Meadow. The focus now is on getting the product to market.

The company has a clear vision that it is not simply competing with the leather industry, but working within, alongside and in partnership with it to provide customers with opportunities they have not previously encountered.

“Support has grown a lot during the past two years, and it is possible that tanners might become partners. Modern Meadow provides a consistent material with a robust supply and that is very important. As an alternative material, it could remove the variability from the market. It can be a bespoke material to help companies differentiate themselves. It could provide companies with the ability to transform their manufacturing processes, while for others it might simply be an alternative to leather. The technology being developed enables all of these issues to be addressed.”

In pursuit of partnership

The appeal of Modern Meadow’s products is manifold. From an ethical standpoint, there are those who embrace the possibility of creating a substance comparable to leather, but removed from animal processing. From the industry perspective, tanners will embrace the consistent quality of the raw material and the ability to step outside the limitations of the size and shape of an animal hide.

“The reaction depends on many factors, but the overall trend is clear,” says Williamson. “As the technology evolves, more people become interested in it, and the firm will scale up accordingly. Modern Meadow has offered the industry a partnership model in order to work inside the existing infrastructure.”

“It is never easy to scale up production, but this year the company has been able to provide larger and larger samples, which will enable it to launch products next year.

“The goal is to scale up over the next five years, because it will take time to build up the infrastructure required to meet demand. It is good that demand exceeds supply.”

For Modern Meadow, bio-fabrication is no mere novelty technology: it is something that the industry will have to embrace.

“Partnering is a clear part of that plan,” states Williamson. Modern Meadow has no drive to do it alone, so it can grow by making partners in key parts of the supply chain. In terms of developing the technology, the innovation is on the biotechnology side and in the development of new materials. Bespoke materials will be made to meet specific needs, and that is something very different to what is on the market now.

“The technology has now reached the stage where it is ready to scale up to meet initial demand, and market research has pointed to opportunities in the automotive, furniture and footwear sectors; interest has already been shown by many parties in these industries.

“It is about finding the right fit in order to determine how the company will grow. As with any new technology, Modern Meadow went to market at low volume, so costs can’t really be compared yet. The technology is really refined, though, and economies of scale will lead to a point at which a comparative cost profile with leather can be achieved, enabling it to be competitive. It must be remembered, however, that the goal is not to be cheaper than leather, but differentiation through the ability to make bespoke materials.”

What lies ahead is a process of education and communication with customers and partners in the supply chain, not least to address many misconceptions about the technology and what Modern Meadow is trying to achieve. The company will have to challenge some of the preconceptions that exist – about leather and about the bio-fabrication process – and show that what it is doing is something very different to what the market has seen before.

Modern Meadow’s products do much more than just mimic leather. The company has a clear vision that it is not simply competing with the leather industry but working within, alongside and in partnership with it to provide customers with opportunities they have not previously encountered.