Lab-grown leather apparel could hit the runways in as little as five years—all without harming a hair on a single animal’s head, according to Andras Forgacs, co-founder and CEO of Modern Meadow, a Missouri-based startup that’s approaching meat-and-leather production from an tissue-bioengineering, rather than farming, point of view. Backed by Breakout Labs, the grant-awarding foundation headed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, Modern Meadow seeks to combine regenerative medicine with three-dimensional printing to synthesize leather and ultimately meat. Just one question: Will animal-rights advocates bite?
Modern Meadow is using in-vitro leather production as its starting point for a simple reason: it’s easier to make than meat. “Our emphasis first is not on meat, it’s on leather,” Forgacs told Txchnologist on Tuesday. “The main reason is that, technically, skin is a simpler structure than meat, making it easier to produce.” The company also has to ease the public into the idea of bioengineered products. “Anecdotally, we’ve found that around 40 percent of people would be willing to try cultured meat,” he said. “There’s much less controversy around using leather that doesn’t involve killing animals.”
While regulatory agencies could delay lab-cultured burgers for 10 years, a full-scale leather-production facility could be operational in as little as five.
While the regulatory agencies could keep lab-cultured burgers off lunch menus for another 10 years, a full-scale leather-production facility could be operational in as little as five, he added. The process of of culturing tissues for leather and food, while more humane than the alternative, is far from animal-free—at least in the beginning. Modern Meadow has to first source “starter cells” by taking punch biopsies of donor livestock. After proliferating the millions of extracted cells into billions in a bioreactor or other growth apparatus, the company centrifuges the products to eliminate the growth medium and lump cells together in aggregated spheres. Next comes the 3D bio-printing, which layers cells, rather than inks, into a cohesive structure.
The newly fused cells are finally placed in a bioreactor and allowed to mature into hide. “We create the embryonic precursor and in the bioreactor apply physical cues to let nature take over,” Forgacs explained. “This stimulates collagen production in the case of the cells that will become leather and muscle growth in what will become meat.”
Modern Meadow’s proposed mode of leather production has more advantages than the question of animal welfare. Because the hides do not have hair or tough outer skin on them, for instance, they require fewer toxic chemicals during tanning. Raising livestock also places a significant burden on the environment by consuming vast amounts of resources and energy.
Modern Meadow’s meat and leather would be competing for a share of a combined $2.5 trillion market, according to Forgacs. “If we can come up with a very good product that can be technically superior in some ways and at the same time environmentally more conscious and animal-friendly, then that could mean a significant portion of the global market,” he added.