Gabor Forgacs holds up a portfolio labeled Global Leathers in shiny gold print. “I want you to feel this,” he says, opening the samples folder to a black square of material. It feels soft and supple, like a kid glove. “Now feel this,” he says, presenting a grayish rectangle the size of a business card. It feels every bit as buttery as the other sample. “Smell it,” he says. Though it has the pungent aroma of freshly tanned animal hide, the swatch is made of biopsied bovine cells multiplied in a flask.
While other companies in the emerging field of tissue engineering focus on supplying the medical market, Forgacs’s business, Modern Meadow, plans to sell lab-grown leather—and eventually meat—to consumers. Forgacs, 65, a biophysicist who heads the University of Missouri’s biological physics lab and Clarkson University’s innovation center, launched the company in 2011 with two Missouri colleagues and his son, Andras, 36, a former venture capitalist and McKinsey consultant. “Leather is a gateway product for us,” Andras Forgacs says amid racks of tissue cultures in their lab at a state-sponsored tech incubator in Columbia, Mo.
The father-son team previously co-founded Organovo, which provides engineered human tissues to drug companies testing new compounds. Gabor Forgacs’s attempts to manufacture blood vessels and muscles convinced him he could enter the $740 billion global meat, fish, and poultry industry. In late 2011 he cooked, salted, and ate a sliver of cultured pork onstage at a TEDMED conference, a taste of what Modern Meadow could develop. His son joined as chief executive officer in January 2012, and the company has since won grants from the federal Small Business Innovation Research program ($242,000) and Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs ($350,000), plus $1.4 million in investments from angel and seed funds.
The challenges of growing meat with the right flavor, texture, and aroma in a lab are daunting. Palatability aside, Modern Meadow’s legal advisers are concerned regulation could stall sales of cultured meat for 5 to 10 years. The company is pushing forward with leather; the CEO intends to show off prototype samples on June 13 at the TEDGlobal conference in Scotland. Pound for pound, leather can be more lucrative than meat, with rare hides fetching hundreds of dollars per square foot. Global leather-product sales total $63 billion a year, according to Bain.
A University of Oxford study of cultured meat estimated a 90 percent savings on resources, including feed, water, land, waste disposal, and greenhouse gas emissions, over the massive environmental costs of animal husbandry. Cultured leather will be equally environmentally friendly and can be grown in uniform shapes, eliminating waste from irregular natural hides as well as the damage wrought by insects, barbed wire, and sunburn. Modern Meadow’s leather will still need to undergo the notoriously toxic process of tanning, but it dispenses with the most chemical-intensive early steps, such as removing hair and flesh.
It will undoubtedly be easier to sell potential customers on lab-grown clothing than food. Designers who don’t use leather in their products, including Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood, would have a cruelty-free alternative. Karen Groner, a professor at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology, says Modern Meadow leather would have a clear appeal to the fashion business. “We all love animals, and no one wants to see them needlessly slaughtered,” she says.
For shoppers concerned about animal cruelty, though, there’s one ingredient that Andras Forgacs calls the “skeleton in the closet” of cultured leather and meat. To multiply, the cells require fetal bovine serum, a fluid derived from calf fetuses. Plant-derived alternatives are costly and produced by genetically modified organisms. While the use of fetal bovine serum can be phased out, genetically modified substitutes may be essential.
For now, Modern Meadow is facing a more fundamental problem: scaling production to a commercial level. On a warm May morning, the Forgacs, senior scientists and co-founders Francoise Marga and Karoly Jakab, plus research assistant Ryan Kaesser gather in a conference room to game out the transition to manufacturing. The process, which takes roughly 30 days, is only just past the proof-of-concept stage and is still largely manual. Jakab excuses himself and ducks into the lab to feed burgeoning films of skin cells, gingerly pouring the red-orange culture medium into dishes. “Efficiency will be the critical hurdle,” says Andras Forgacs. “As we scale up, we need to make sure we can produce a high-quality product at a price the market will accept.”
In late summer, Modern Meadow expects to move from samples the size of credit cards to sheets at least 10 inches square, and the company aims to collaborate with designers next year on accessories and apparel. While many hurdles remain before cultured animal products hit store shelves, some people are eager to try the company’s leather on for size. Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says she’s been following tissue engineering research for two decades and that it’s past time to replace the animal hide used in jackets, shoes, handbags, belts, couches, and car seats. “The impact of cultured leather will be phenomenal and wonderful,” she says.