Modern Meadow raises $40 million to grow leather without livestock

A Brooklyn-based startup called Modern Meadow has raised $40 million to become a top source of leather for the world’s makers of fashion and accessories, luggage, sporting goods, upholstery and furniture.

Rather than raising animals to slaughter them and take the skin off their backs in a physically and chemically intensive process, Modern Meadow “biofabricates” its leather in labs and foundries.

Modern Meadow CEO and co-founder Andras Forgacs explains that biofabrication involves the design of cells to produce and assemble collagen and other proteins to yield leather that is “biologically identical” to traditional types.

Biofabrication is environmentally beneficial, he believes. He said, “We’re making a material that has no hair flesh or fat on it. So the liming and toxicity you see elsewhere in the leather trade is eliminated.”

Chief Creative Officer for Modern Meadow, Suzanne Lee, said the company’s processes can generate leather that’s made to a designer’s specifications and imbued with desirable traits like a certain flexibility, elasticity, thinness or thickness.

Once produced, the leathers can go to a tannery for additional dyeing, she noted.

Horizons Ventures, an equity investing vehicle for Li Ka-shing, and Iconiq Capital led Modern Meadow’s Series B round, joined by ARTIS Ventures, Temasek, Breakout Ventures, Red Swan Ventures, Collaborative Fund and Tony Faddell, the inventor, designer and founder of Nest Labs.

The funding brings Modern Meadow’s total capital raised to $53.5 million to-date.

Modern Meadow is using synthetic biology to grow leather in labs, not from livestock.

Modern Meadow is using synthetic biology to grow leather in labs, not from livestock.

Forgacs said the company intends to use the funding to move beyond research and development into a “scale up” phase which will include the expansion of its lab and design studio in New York, and the establishment of its first foundry or factory, as well as continued hiring.

Horizons Ventures’ Bart Swanson said his firm re-upped their investment in Modern Meadow, in part, because the company had managed to attract tech talent in a competitive market, and advanced their technology enough to yield promising leather samples.

In September last year, Modern Meadow managed to poach DuPont’s chief of staff for the chief science and technology officer, Dave Williamson, as their CTO.

“Now that we can sit there and play with these materials, we can imagine moving from the laboratory into full-scale production,” Swanson said. “It’s not theoretical.”

One main challenge Modern Meadow still faces will be to make its biofabricated leather not just an attractive option but an affordable one for the mass market, the investor and company executives acknowledged.

Swanson compared Modern Meadow’s ambitions to that of the most successful clean tech companies from an earlier wave of innovation and investing. “It took us a long time to rid ourselves of total dependence on oil and carbon fuels, now renewable energy, LED lighting and electric vehicles have traction,” Swanson said.

According to forecasts from Research and Markets, sales of leather goods–including luggage, apparel and accessories–are expected to hit $91.2 billion globally by 2018.

Modern Meadow wants to win a material share of this massive market for leather, and even grow it, by offering an appealing alternative to the natural and synthetic options that exist today, Forgacs said.

Corrections & clarifications: Modern Meadow designs cells that assemble collagen.