Imagine a world where humans could thrive without having to harm any living creatures in the process of feeding and dressing themselves. Then think again, and imagine the kind of impact that this might have on sustaining our environment and planet. This is exactly the type of longterm directives that Brooklyn-based biofabrication company Modern Meadow has taken the first steps towards. Using 3D-printed collagen, Modern Meadow has developed the world’s first biofabricated leather-like fabric.
Produced without the use of animal products, Zoa is the high-tech and versatile material that offers a glimpse into an emerging industry that dares to imagine a more sustainable future.
In 2013, Modern Meadow co-founder and CEO Andras Forgacs presented the company’s vision and an early prototype of Zoa in a TED talk. The video has since clocked more than one million YouTube views and four years later, Zoa is almost ready for market, evolving beyond simply offering a sustainable leather alternative into a material with endless new design and performance possibilities.
Alice Cavanagh: We know that you started out bioprinting organs for medical use. How did you transition into the idea of working on a more sustainable level with materials?
Andras Forgacs: Bioprinting is one example of a larger field called biofabrication, which means building with biology. I was always intrigued by the idea that if we can have one form of biofabrication applied to medical problems, then what could we do with biofabrication more broadly? Could we go after consumer challenges? Could we go after challenges in the food industry? Could we go after environmental problems? Leather came up as an opportunity very early on. Before I even started Modern Meadow, some innovative thinkers in the leather industry had called me up and asked, “Hey, so if you’re able to grow skin…?” – which we were doing at the time for companies like L'Oréal, who used it to test and develop new products. If you have enough of those conversations, eventually you find yourself saying “yes” before you have fully figured it out.
AC: How long did it take to perfect Zoa as a proposition?
AF: Oh, gosh — five years? This is not the kind of thing where you get a bunch of smart people together and do a ‘hackathon' over a weekend and then you've got it solved by Monday. When you're dealing with biology and with deep science, it takes years to develop something. In the early days, we were thinking broadly about trying to go after animal products without the animal, so we were thinking about food and materials. We realised early on that those are two very different sets of challenges and opportunities, so materials were, for us, the compelling way to go. This fall we were able to unveil Zoa for the first time to the public at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and at a pop-up exhibit in Soho, and we are going to unveil a product with partners next year. Initially, it will be limited edition and small production runs, but it's going to grow from there, and will hopefully become more widely available in 2019 to 2020.
AC: What are the economics of this product? Is it something that will be a more affordable alternative to traditional leather?
AF: Leather for us is an inspiration, and sure, the materials that we produce are made of the same building blocks, and have the same properties, but then they can also go far beyond traditional leather in terms of design, performance, and functionality. Now, how does it compare in price? Well, leather has a very wide price range. In the high end, you're dealing with alligator and crocodile, then you have the very low commodity end. In this first instance, we are competitive with the luxury and premium end of the spectrum.
AC: What is the environmental footprint of this product?
AF: The environmental impact is significantly reduced compared to that of traditional livestock agriculture. This is a much more efficient process, as much less land, water, chemicals, and greenhouse gas emissions are involved. The footprint of this is more like running a brewery, because essentially, the first step in our process is like brewing beer, except instead of making alcohol, we produce collagen. Then we take that collagen and make our materials. This process can be run in a localised manner; close to, or right next to where the material is needed and where the manufacturing operations of our partners run.
AC: I'm interested in the feedback you have had so far from the fashion and design industry, especially within the luxury sector where tradition takes pride of place. What challenges do you think will arise there?
AF: I think the industry is very smart and has a real appetite for innovation and for creativity; for being more efficient from a business standpoint, and more resource-efficient from an environmental standpoint. The challenge, as a small company, is that we have to be thoughtful about our bandwidth and with whom we can engage, and when. We've got this technology and material that could potentially play everywhere that leather does, and then a bunch of places it doesn’t, so we have to make a list of priorities in order to stay focused.
AC: In your TED talk you also mentioned meat products. Do you think that biofabricated food is the final frontier?
AF: Good question. I wouldn't say it's necessarily a bigger challenge, I'd say it's a different challenge, and one that’s certainly out of scope for Modern Meadow now. Focus is key to any successful enterprise, so we are very focused on the opportunities around materials, which is already a big mission. Food is a compelling opportunity. I wouldn't say that the technology is more challenging, necessarily. If anything, the challenge is that we, as people, tend to be suspicious of technology in food. I certainly think that food production is a worldwide problem that needs solving, but I think we would need a different company to work on it, and a different team to obsess about and focus solely on it for it to happen as it should.
Andras Forgacs is a speaker at the BoF VOICES 2017 conference where QICGRE is the principal sponsor.