“People who are using leather are much more concerned these days about the impact of their choices on the planet.”
For many years the world's most exclusive designers resisted calls to stop using fur. However, in recent times that has all changed as the industry moved from using animals to using plastics to make faux fur. Leather is also seeing changes as manufacturing becomes more transparent and consumers are asking for the industry to clean up its process. Modern Meadow is a US-based company that is using biotechnology to transform the world of materials by harnessing nature’s toolkit to inspire design for a healthier planet.
Here, Liz Gyekye, senior content manager for Bio-Based World News, catches up with David Williamson, chief technology officer at Modern Meadow.
Liz Gyekye (LG): Welcome to 5 Minutes With. Can you begin with a description about Modern Meadow and what it is the company does?
David Williamson (DW): Modern Meadow (@ModernMeadow) is pioneering biologically advanced materials. Our company harnesses the power of design, biology and material science to produce a world of biofabricated materials that inspire design for a healthier planet. We believe biofabrication unlocks the power of nature to offer new design possibilities. We recently launched Zoa, our first brand of biofabricated materials inspired by leather. Zoa is created through our proprietary process in our labs in New Jersey. In an animal-free process, we design the DNA of yeast to produce collagen during fermentation, which can then be purified and assembled into unique material structures.
Our CEO and Co-Founder, Andras Forgacs (@atforgacs), had previously founded a company called Organovo, which pioneered the bio-printing of human tissue. He had been approached by several industry leaders who asked “if you can use 3D printing to make tissues, can you also use 3D printing to make leather?” They found that the opportunity was really compelling and so, the idea for Modern Meadow was born. There is clearly a demand for the types of materials that we are creating, which is really exciting. We knew that once we had settled on the technology – which is a biofabrication approach rather than the printing technology – that the market would be waiting for us.
LG: Before getting into your role at Modern Meadow, what were you doing?
DW: I was formally trained as a chemist in material sciences. I spent more than 12 years at chemicals company DuPont where I held a number of positions. For instance, I held a role that helped with developing nanotechnology and was also part of a team that developed products in large facilities. I also helped to develop new bio-materials.
So, before Modern Meadow, my time at DuPont gave me insights into many aspects of developing a new technology. I also found out what it took to scale that technology into a commercial product.
In my last role at DuPont, I worked for the company’s chief science of technology officer. This was a great opportunity for me to think about commercialisation as it relates to technology.
LG: Is the green agenda moving forward?
DW: Yes. We are seeing the interest in sustainability being driven by a number of different perspectives. First, a shift in demographics. People who are using leather are much more concerned these days about the impact it has on the planet. Second, the businesses that serve the consumer are gaining a different perspective on the value of materials that have a lower carbon footprint on the planet. If they are able to offer these materials, it will give them a competitive advantage with their consumers.
You are seeing this in sectors like fashion and luxury. You are starting to see major fashion houses come out with statements like “they are no longer going to work with fur” or “we will no longer work with exotic leather materials”. I think this is the beginning of a greater trend that is going to have more and more support as time goes on.
We are creating materials that can serve numerous markets. If you look at the leather market, broadly speaking, there are many markets that are attractive. For example, hard luxury, soft luxury, auto and upholstery. We believe our materials can be tailored to meet the demands of these markets and bring unique design aesthetics with high-performance qualities that benefit the consumer.
LG: What challenges does your organisation face?
DW: There are a couple of challenges you face in every rapidly growing company. You have to bring the right talent in at the right time. You also have to find a balance between the current needs of the company and working with new partners. In terms of the company’s success, one of the big challenges you need to think about is scaling up production. This is one of the reasons we partnered with Evonik, a leader in microbial fermentation, as we prepare to grow production of our biofabricated materials to commercial scale.
When we made the shift away from tissue engineering, we knew that it would be important to scale with a partner. One key aspect of our product is our collagen protein. Working with Evonik as a partner, allows us to manage the challenges of scaling.
Scaling our materials is also a challenge that we are working on. We want to take our material science and scale that with existing operations that currently exist in the world.
LG: What advice would you give to someone starting out in this space?
DW: My first piece of advice, as you think about materials and biotechnology, is to recognise that you are scaling up two individual companies. One arm of Modern Meadow is a biotechnology company that creates collagen protein for use in materials. The other arm takes those proteins and turns them into materials. You have to recognise the challenges that come with scaling up those two separate activities and making sure they converge.
My second piece of advice would be to recognise the challenge of product development. You have to turn that early result into something that people want to buy – this is 90% of the work. Don’t underestimate the challenge of productising your technology.
LG: What’s your favourite sustainable/bio-based product?
DW: Mother Dirt is a really cool company that has figured out specific strains of bacteria that can be sprayed onto the human body in lieu of a deodorant. The smell we have as people is a result of the interaction between the sweat and oils produced by our skin and the bacteria flora that feeds on it. Mother Dirt has found bacteria species that interact with our bodies’ existing flora, resulting in less body odour. This means that people no longer have to use a deodorant.