This leather is made in a lab, not from livestock

Key Points
  • European chemicals giant Evonik is partnering with Modern Meadow, a start-up that brews leather rather than making it from livestock.
  • Modern Meadow is backed by Li Ka-Shing's Horizons Ventures, and Breakout Ventures, a Peter Thiel fund, among others.
  • The synthetic biology start-up is poised to disrupt the $100 billion leather industry.
This company figured out a way to make real leather in a lab

A start-up called Modern Meadow has developed a way to brew leather in a lab, without harming any animals.

Here's how it works, according to Modern Meadow CEO and founder, Andras Forgacs:

"We have engineered a strain of yeast — like a cousin of what you'd use to brew beer — which can produce collagen through fermentation. Collagen, which is found in animal skins, is the main biological building block of leather. We assemble it into a range of materials that become our 'Zoa bioleather.'"

In recent months, Modern Meadow has refined its technology, so that its leathers can be brewed on the equipment found in large commercial fermentation facilities that make food and medical-grade products for the masses.

Chief Technology Officer Dave Williamson told CNBC that Modern Meadow has also struck a joint development partnership with European chemicals giant Evonik that will help it scale production, and make Zoa bioleathers available to designers of luxury goods.

The company isn't yet disclosing the names of designers who have access to its leathers, which feel and even smell like leather made from animal skins. However, Forgacs said Modern Meadow has been fielding inquiries from hundreds of designers across fashion, sports, automotive and other industries.

Funded by Li Ka-shing's Horizons Ventures, Iconiq Capital, Breakout Ventures (a Peter Thiel affiliated fund) and Temasek, among others, Modern Meadow is poised to disrupt the $100 billion leather industry.

Source: Modern Meadow

The company's bioleathers take just two weeks to create in a foundry or a lab, which is far shorter than the amount of time it takes to raise livestock and put animal hydes through a chemically intense process. They can be made to match any thickness, texture or color a designer specifies.

Biofabricated Zoa leather can be delivered in sheets, like traditional leather. But it can also be poured into place, serving as a seam in a given product. "It can go anywhere traditional leather would go, and beyond," Forgacs said.

Even the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has taken notice of Modern Meadow's futuristic leather. It asked the start-up to create a graphic t-shirt for an exhibition last year called "Items: Is Fashion Modern?" After the show, MoMA acquired the shirt into its permanent collection.