Andras Forgacs first held a leadership role at Organovo, a company that used 3D printing to make skin tissue for medical use. In 2011, fashion industry executives inquired about using this same process to print leather in order to lessen the environmental impact and avoid the poor performance issues of petroleum-based leather alternatives. Forgacs reunited the team that invented the technology behind Organovo to found Modern Meadow. Instead of 3D printing, however, Modern Meadow uses the process of fermentation to grow collagen to create animal-free leather.
Modern Meadow's four co-founders (Forgacs, his father, and two more biophysicists) initially sought funding to explore growing both animal-free meat and animal-free leather. They decided to focus on leather and created Zoa™ after six years of research and development. They unveiled a graphic t-shirt made from Zoa at MoMA in 2017.
Zoa is Modern Meadow’s first material created with their fermented protein. Zoa looks and performs like leather, but is created by using yeast to grow collagen, the protein in skin.
Modern Meadow uses yeast to grow collagen protein in a process similar to insulin production and beer brewing. By putting the code for the desired protein into yeast and giving the yeast the necessary nutrients, the yeast is turned into a protein factory. Modern Meadow uses a renewably sourced glycerol from biodiesel production as the growth medium, but fermentation can use other plant-based feedstock. After the fermented collagen proteins are purified, they are assembled into sheets (pictured) that can be made into leather-like products.
Modern Meadow’s Zoa will likely be more sustainable than animal leathers and petroleum-based alternatives in a number of categories. Production almost certainly requires less land, water, and energy. In addition, no animals or petrochemicals are used to make Zoa.
Using fermentation to produce collagen, Modern Meadow can control look and feel as well as performance and functionality throughout the process. Zoa can be grown to mimic various animal skins, including alligator and ostrich. The company states that Zoa is price competitive with high end leather and that they can customize to designer specifications. Because Zoa starts as a liquid, it can be poured into many shapes and patterns.
Graphic t-shirt made from Zoa exhibited at MoMA in 2017.
Images from Modern Meadow.