Your MoMA: proto-Zoa challenges New York leather scene
NEW YORK, N.Y.––Can the proto-Zoa leather-like product on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art until January 28, 2018 replace leather derived from animals?
MoMA, as the Museum of Modern Art has long been nicknamed, seems to think so. And so do high-rolling entrepreneurs who have so far invested as much as $50 million in a high-stakes (and no steaks) gamble that Zoa can replace cowhide and indeed every other sort of leather currently used in the clothing, apparel, accessory and upholstery industries.
Zoa, developed and named by a company called Modern Meadow, is made from yeast––and no one has to skin the yeast to produce it.
Unveiled in SoHo & at Museum of Modern Art
Modern Meadow previewed the Zoa-and-cotton t-shirt displayed at the Museum of Modern Art since October 1, 2017, and other Zoa samples, at 1470 Crosby Sreet in SoHo, by appointment only, beginning on September 27, 2017.
Among the early viewers was Quartz writer Marc Bain.
“This is an animal-free leather,” Bain wrote, “but it isn’t quite a synthetic imitation either. It’s made of actual collagen, the main structural ingredient in natural animal skin, only Modern Meadow’s comes from genetically engineered yeast. ‘Biofabricated leather material’ was the term used by Amy Congdon, the company’s senior materials designer.
“Similar to synthetic spider silk”
“The process to create them,” Bain said, “is similar to how companies are creating synthetic spider silk,” and also resembles the processes used to make drugs such as insulin from bio-engineered yeasts.
“Only one material I was able to handle deliberately mimicked leather,” Bain reported, “but it looked and felt just like the top-grain leather commonly used for upholstery. Nothing about it seemed fake or substandard as I bent and folded it.
“Other samples on hand were there to show the range of capabilities Modern Meadow’s technology offers,” Bain recounted. “One had a grain, if you could call it that, in a large hexagonal shape that wasn’t like any leather you would find in nature. Others blended colors into smokey swirls.
Will it wear?
“A big test will be how these products wear over time,” Bain observed, “since that’s one of the main attractions of leather. All the samples are on a textile backing of some sort. It turns out they are all examples of ‘liquid leather’ that could be poured onto a textile or used for whatever purpose you might think up.
“Modern Meadow wants to show that its technology goes beyond any traditional notion we have of what leather is and how it could be used,” Bain explained. “The t-shirt on display at MoMA uses the leather to create stitchless seams. It was cut apart, and then the pieces were bonded back together using just the leather-like material.”
Investment isn’t just looking at the high end
Zoa communications director Natalia Krasnodebska told Bain that the company is “not looking to compete with commodity leather, not trying to go mass market,” and instead is looking to enter the marketplace with high-end luxury products.
But the market niche envisioned by the people putting $50 million into Zoa research, development, and early-stage manufacturing is unlikely to be limited to high fashion and perhaps the seats of expensive sports cars.
“The price should come down as the company scales production up,” Bain anticipated. “One immediate cost benefit is that the leather can be grown into a specific shape, or used to make a uniform roll that is much less wasteful than cutting out pattern pieces from blemished, irregularly shaped animal hides.”
What would Rockefeller have said?
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the billionaire philanthropist youngest son of the cofounder of the Standard Oil Company, notoriously hated the whole idea of the Museum of Modern Art , founded in 1929 by his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and her friends Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan.
But John D. Rockefeller Jr. might have exempted the Zoa exhibit from his disapproval, precisely because it does have the potential to undercut the $100 billion global market for leather products peeled from the flesh and bones of animals.
Endowed Grand Teton to save elk
Though not as animal-focused in his philanthropy as his relative Geraldine Dodge Rockefeller, who founded the St. Hubert’s Giralda animal shelter in New Jersey, John D. Rockefeller made clear his concern for animals in the February 10, 1943 letter in which he pressured then-U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt into accepting his gift to the U.S. government of the land that became the heart of Grand Teton National Park:
“Many years ago I purchased some thirty thousand acres of land in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on the earnest recommendation of the then Director of National Parks. This I did in order to provide winter feeding for the great quantities of game which were being gradually exterminated by starvation.”
Quick to appreciate and capitalize on promising new technology, John D. Rockefeller Jr. might also have appreciated that Zoa “is made using a smart custom DNA-based biofabrication process that’s not a million miles away from CRISPR gene editing,” summarized Luke Dormehl of DigitalTrends.com.
“While the Modern Meadow engineers started off growing skin cells to create their leather,” Dormehl wrote, “they have now developed a way to create collagen — the essential biological ingredient for the manufacture of leather — using a fermentation process. This collagen is then purified and tanned to create a material that is biologically almost exactly the same as animal leather,” except that it can be made thinner and lighter than any animal leather.
Most important, Dormehl emphasized, “The production process to manufacture it is significantly faster and cleaner than [that of] regular animal leather.”
Not quite growing cowhide
Modern Meadow “does not quite grow cow skin,” elaborated Sarah Zheng on September 21, 2017 for The Atlantic. “It grows a strain of yeast engineered to produce collagen, the protein in skin that gives leather its strength and stretch. Traditionally, making leather amounts to removing almost everything from skin,” such as fat and hair, “that isn’t collagen. Modern Meadow is basically skipping ahead. Once purified, pressed into sheets, and tanned, their vat-grown collagen becomes, essentially, leather.”
Modern Meadow founder Andras Forgacs and his father and chief scientific officer Gabor Forgacs, Zheng explained, “started the company Organovo [in 2006] to grow human tissue for medical and pharmaceutical research. Going from engineering human tissue to animal tissue, says Andras Forgacs, seemed like a logical next step. In 2011, they started Modern Meadow with the goal of growing leather and eventually meat in tissue culture.
Problem of economics
“But they quickly ran into a problem of economics,” Zheng wrote. “Organovo only had to make tiny quantities of tissue for medical purposes, which it could then sell at high prices. A steak requires growing many thousands of times more cow tissue, at a much lower price per ounce.”
Abandoning the notion of growing cultured meat in 2015, “Modern Meadow initially tried to grow cow skin cells for leather much like how it grew cow muscle cells for meat,” Zheng continued. “Mammalian cells are finicky, however, and they require specific and nutrient-rich medium. The problems were twofold: One, the medium required to grow the cells includes serum extracted from unborn calves, thus negating any animal-free promises; and two, all kinds of unwanted bacteria and yeast will grow in a nutrient-rich medium, requiring expensive equipment to maintain sterility.”
“Mammalian cells had to go”
David Williamson, a former DuPont executive who joined Modern Meadow in 2015, “eventually decided the mammalian cells had to go,” in favor of yeasts. The challenge then became “getting yeast to make bovine collagen,” Zheng recounted.
“Yeasts do not spit out collagen that automatically assembles into sheets of leather. Williamson’s team had to add two other genes for enzymes that help modify the collagen’s molecular structure, and then—using another process he declined to detail—Modern Meadow forms it into sheets of rawhide. The rawhide can be tanned just like the stuff that comes from cows.”
While producing Zoa promises to become less expensive than producing leather, Steven Lange, director of the Leather Research Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati, reminded Zheng that leather from animals is “a waste byproduct of the food industry.”
What that means in real-world economics is that no matter how cheaply Zoa can be produced, leather will still be available for less, so long as demand for meat and milk supports raising cattle and pigs.
“It may now be possible to make leather without a cow,” Zheng concluded. “The problem that remains is people still want the rest of the cow.”
But how many will “want the rest of the cow” for how long?
But that may change soon. Commercially viable cultured meat has been promised for the near future by Hampton Creek cofounder Josh Tetrick. And regardless of whether Hampton Creek delivers on schedule, other “meat analog” products made from plant materials such as tofu and seitan are capturing growing market share. These factors, together with the environmental cost of animal-based meat production, may soon combine to significantly reduce how many people “still want the rest of the cow.”
Meanwhile, said Modern Meadow in a media release announcing the introduction of the Zoa brand: “This begins a broader conversation about the design and manufacturing possibilities available with biofabrication. Modern Meadow is currently partnering with world-class brands across luxury and consumer goods categories,” the media release added, “to grow products of Zoa, slated for release in 2018.”
In August 2017 Modern Meadow relocated from Brooklyn, New York, “where its 60 staff have been quietly developing the new material,” The Economist reported, “to a laboratory in Nutley, New Jersey, where they will begin production trials, collaborating with a number of as-yet-unnamed other firms in the clothing, shoe, furniture and automotive industries,” hoping “to bring the new material to market within two years.”
If by any chance Zoa products need reinforcement to wear as well as leather in products that receive high-stress use, such as shoes and car seats, custom baseball glove maker Scott Carpenter of Carpenter Trade in Cooperstown, New York, may have the answer.
“From Carpenter’s perspective,” working out of a small shop near the Baseball Hall of Fame, “leather itself was an obstacle between players and better performance,” reported Steven Kutz of MarketWatch.com in 2014. “Carpenter had made shoes and sneakers for himself with synthetic material. He thought such material could improve on leather because it is stronger, lighter and more breathable.”
Non-leather has already made the majors
The first non-leather baseball glove used in the major leagues debuted with pitcher Brian Gordon of the New York Yankees, who had already played briefly in the big leagues, on June 16, 2011. Another pitcher, Michael Schwimer, had introduced Gordon to non-leather gloves when they were minor league teammates in 2010. Schwimmer debuted for the Phillies with his non-leather glove later in the 2011 season.
Gordon and Schwimer both used Carpenter Trade gloves hand-crafted from nylon microfiber. Neither lasted long in the major leagues, just parts of two seasons each, during which Gordon had a won/lost record of 0-1 while Schwimer was 3-2. Similar gloves have now been used by at least seven other U.S. professional players, and at least one professional player in Southeast Asia.
$560 vs. free
More major leaguers probably would use Carpenter Trade gloves except for the economic factors: Carpenter Trade gloves start at $560. Most major league players get their gloves for free as part of endorsement contracts.
Ten ounces lighter than conventional leather baseball gloves, the vegan Carpenter Trade gloves meet the strength and safety requirements of Major League Baseball Inc., meaning that they can stand up to hundreds of impacts of baseballs traveling at close to 100 miles per hour.
Non-leather vinyl baseball and softball gloves were introduced for recreational play by several makers circa 1990, but had a notoriously short useful lifespan and are now sold only for use by children who are just beginning to play ball.
“Quality of synthetics then was awful”
“The quality of synthetics back then was awful compared to now,” Carpenter told ANIMALS 24-7 after Gordon and Schwimmer made their brief major league marks. “I believe the tipping point for synthetics in professional baseball gloves is now–it wasn’t plausible earlier.”
Recently Scott Carpenter has experimented with combining the costly nylon microfiber components of baseball gloves, which flex the most and absorb the hardest impacts, with less expensive materials for the palms and backs.
Zoa could become one of those materials––and nylon microfibers could in turn reinforce Zoa in almost any high-stress application.