Crack that Whip! Modern Meadow, Evonik partner to take vegan leather to world-scale

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News has arrived from the US East Coast that Evonik will be Modern Meadow’s worldwide development partner to industrialize and scale-up collagen production for use in the company’s bioleather materials technology. The long-term partnership was just announced, and ends a short but intense period of wondering for Modern Meadow’s many fans – who propelled the company into the #42 spot out of more than 1,000 eligible organizations in the recent 50 Hottest Companies in the Advanced Bioeconomy rankings.

Here’s what we know

Moving beyond a joint development agreement, the companies will be working together in partnership to improve the fermentation process. They will also be optimizing the yeast organisms for higher yield of collagen, leaving open the door for future collaborations in developing other proteins.

Here’s what everyone will want to see from this collaboration

For one, the scale-up steps, Modern Meadow we understand will take a strategic and rifle-shot approach to commercializing the technology — entering a select number of sectors initially and producing (for now) commercial samples in order to seed to the application development with customers. So there’s no gigantic rush on to reach say, 500,000 liter fermentation scale. But the global leather market is huge and ultimately the winners in this sector are going to offer, in addition to a win on sustainability and cool technology, the lower-cost advanced leathers.

How big is the leather goods market? According to Lucintel, “industry revenue is forecast to reach $91.2 billion by 2018, with a CAGR of 3.4%, over the next five years. The competitive rivalry seems to be high due to the large number of players competing with each other to gain market share.”

Another thing. Progress on rate, titer and yield. According to Modern Meadow, there’s been significant advances made on all three — but according to CTO Williamson, “we’ve come a long way on rate, but the upside on all three (Rate, titer and yield) is substantial, and we continue and will continue to make gains.”

Here’s what we don’t know

For one, where the partnership will land for the development work. The Evonik facility in Blair, Nebraska screams out as a candidate (It’s home to Evonik’s world-scale lysine production, and recently became home to the DSM-Evonik JV, Veramaris, in omega-3 production).

We also don’t know the timing of the next scale-up stages, and we don’t know much about the carbon energy source that Modern Meadow is currently using, or much about the organism, except to say that the pathways that are used to produce collagen have been installed inside a yeast chassis, and that the yeast species in question is Pichia pastoris, which is widely-used for protein production in the world of digital biology.

And, we don’t yet know the nature of exclusivities which Evonik holds as the first global development partner.

Why Evonik?

“We started the conversation with Evonik a couple of years ago,” Dave Williamson, Modern Meadow CTO told the Digest, “and as we moved from tissue culture to fermentation and developed an organism that could be dropped in to existing assets, we started looking to the Evonik’s of the world who have exceptional development and operational skills. A partnership like this gives us the ability to take the scale-up steps, to 1000, to 5000, to 50,000 liters and to go from there, and allows us to focus on optimizing our core technology. Evonik was not only a great technological fit for us, they have been culturally well fitted for us. They understand the risks of moving from one scale to another.”

Evonik will leverage more than three decades of expertise in the development, scale-up and commercial production of fermentation-based products to optimize Modern Meadow’s fermentation strains and processes and bring collagen protein biofabrication to commercial scale.

And, for sure, the company has huge resources at its call. Evonik is active in over 100 countries with more than 36,000 employees. In fiscal 2017, the enterprise generated sales of €14.4 billion and an operating profit (adjusted EBITDA) of €2.36 billion.

The Modern Meadow backstory

Modern Meadow’s technology platform uses the latest DNA editing tools to engineer specialized collagen-producing yeast cells. The cells are optimized to manufacture the type and quantity of collagen required. Once purified, the collagen is formulated and assembled into materials for consumer applications. Zoa bioleather materials are innovative, advanced materials which can be combined with other natural or man-made materials to offer new aesthetic and performance properties.

The company raised an impressive $40 million Series B round in 2016 Led by Horizons Ventures and Iconiq Capital with other investors participating in the round including ARTIS Ventures, Temasek, Breakout Ventures, Red Swan Ventures, Collaborative Fund and Tony Fadell. The funding brought Modern Meadow’s total funds raised to $53.5 million.

The Pivot to fermentation

Last year, the company announced a major turning point from lab-scale tissue culturing to a fermentation approach.

“This announcement marks a substantial turning point for the company,” said Dave Williamson at the time. “Now, using our proprietary biofabrication process, we are producing animal-free, recombinant collagen that rivals any collagen currently on the market. This shows that it’s possible not only to create breakthrough materials but to do so at an industrial scale.”

As we reported last October,  a T-shirt made of animal-free leather is being displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. Biotechnology firm Modern Meadow used an engineered yeast to make the material—a collagen that looks like cow leather.

The T-shirt “will change the way you think about leather,” David Williamson, Modern Meadow CTO, tells Plant-Based News. Company CEO Suzanne Lee says the technology aims to explore materials that enable “never-seen-before functionality, aesthetics, and performance possibilities.” The exhibit is entitled “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” and runs through January 28. A pop-up exhibit is also planned for October 12th in Manhattan’s SoHo district.

Cow-free leather exhibited at Manhattan’s MoMA

We reported last month that Modern Meadow added former Shinola executive Bridget Russo as Chief Marketing Officer and former Michael Kors executive Anna Bakst to its Board of Directors. The news comes on the heels of the debut of Zoa, the bioleather materials brand that Modern Meadow introduced in October at the Museum of Modern Art.

The new additions to Modern Meadow’s executive and advisory teams will help guide the company’s transition from R&D to commercial production. Modern Meadow added 40 new staff in 2017, bringing the head count to 72 full time employees. To accommodate continued growth, Modern Meadow also relocated company headquarters to the former Roche headquarters in Nutley, New Jersey and established a design and applied research studio at New Lab in Brooklyn.

Modern Meadow grows its team as well as its bioleather

The vegan leather back story

We reported last August as One Green Planet outlined recent efforts to develop leather substitutes to meet growing demand on the fashion industry for vegan alternatives.

Ananas Anam is producing a leather-like material from pineapple leaves, a byproduct of pineapple cultivation. The byproduct of the fiber extraction process is then used to make fertilizer.

Green Banana Paper is using  recycled banana trees to produce water-resistant wallets. The Kosrae, Micronesia, company says it has already recycled over 170,000 pounds of leaves.

After 20 years of research, MycoWorks is using mushroom mycelium to make leather. Based in Milan, Italy, Vegea has developed a way to make leather using the skins, stalks, and seeds of grapes.

We also reported in December that a political science major at Liberty University has been growing his own clothes. Luis Quijano, now a senior, said he has been growing a leather-like material via fermentation with water, sugar, green tea, and kombucha.

Interest in renewable fabrics and vegan leather is growing due to the fashion industry’s poor environmental performance. The use of 3D forms to dry sheets of biobased materials into a shape could revolutionize the way clothes are made.

“It has the potential to eliminate a lot of waste from the fashion industry,” says Quijano. “This textile circumnavigates a lot of the processes of the industry.”

Quijano originally became interested in the process after a 2011 TED talk by fashion design Suzanne Lee, who also is chief creative officer at biobased leather startup Modern Meadow. Quijano began fermenting the fabric in his dorm room, but has since moved production to incubators at Liberty’s Center for Natural Sciences.

Virginia college senior grows his own clothes

Reaction from the principals

“This announcement marks a historic moment for us, as we look to scale fermentation on an order of magnitude that will enable us to move into commercial production” added Williamson. “Evonik is a clear leader in microbial fermentation, and their innovation and production capacity convinced us that they are the right partner for this critical program.”

“We at Evonik are honored and excited to have been selected to take part in this highly innovative program, which will see Modern Meadow’s bold vision come to life through the production of new  bioleather materials addressing unmet customer needs,” said Dr. Jean-Luc Herbeaux, Head of the Business Line Health Care of Evonik. “We look forward to working with Modern Meadow on the scale-up and industrialization of their advanced collagen biofabrication technology.”

The Bottom Line

Many questions remain including some basic ones about the nature of the technology and the Evonik partnership — those will be answered surely in the fullness of time. Meanwhile we wait to see those scale-up steps and for Modern Meadow to realize that upside in rate, titer and yield.

The market is huge, the desire for alternatives is intense, the margins can be hefty in the world of fashion and leather goods. It comes down to technology and of course Evonik’s commitment says quite a bit about that. We’ll be keeping a close eye on Blair, Nebraska for the next few months — that’s for sure.

More on the company.