Image: Óscar Matamora

APEX Insight: ETF Partners, an equity fund manager focused on sustainability, yesterday announced a £70-million investment in E-Leather. The company produces an eco-friendly leather-fiber composite that is used by more than 150 airlines for their seat covers. Meanwhile, scientists at Modern Meadow are brewing the latest revolution in textiles: lab-grown, non-mammalian leather. FAA requirements will dictate how lab-grown textiles permeate the airline industry.

Inside Modern Meadow’s Nutley, New Jersey, facility, scientists are brewing the latest revolution in textiles: lab-grown, non-mammalian leather that looks and feels like the real thing.

“We ferment yeast – basically brew beer,” explains Christopher Chew, Modern Meadow’s product manager. But instead of creating alcohol during the fermentation process, the company creates collagen – the protein in skin that gives leather its strength and elasticity – which is then assembled into a material structure. How exactly? That’s something Modern Meadow isn’t planning to divulge. “Assembly is our speciality. That’s where a lot of our novelty and technology lies,” Chew says.

“We ferment yeast – basically brew beer.” – Christopher Chew, Modern Meadow

The bio-leather material is actually a liquid that can be pressed into sheets and tanned, or formed around 3-D objects, into different textures, shapes and sizes. Because it’s not constrained by an animal’s size, it is easily scalable and, compared with traditional leather, which takes years to produce when factoring in time for livestock rearing, yields a quick turnaround – two weeks from start to finish. It also touts a kinder ecological footprint than those of petroleum-based synthetic leathers and the resource-heavy farming industry.

There’s been interest in the bio-engineered product coming from every corner of industry, including aerospace, Chew says. But the company isn’t planning to release its material, which it premiered in September under the brand name ZOA, for mass consumption just yet. Instead, Modern Meadow is partnering with different stakeholders to figure out what added value its bio-leather can offer. (There are two product releases using ZOA planned for this year in the luxury and sportswear arenas, though Chew declined to say any more.)

While supplying the upholstery for an entire airplane would be “cool,” Chew would first want to understand how the material would function in an aviation environment; how durability would play with lightness or flammability, for instance. “There’s a lot rolled into the expectation of any material on the interior of a vehicle, whether aerospace or automotive,” he says.

Nico Den Ouden, business unit director of Mass Transportation at UK-headquartered E-Leather, knows a thing or two about those expectations. The company’s product, a high-performance leather-fiber composite, is created using offcuts that would otherwise end up in landfills. Today, more than 150 airlines use its material for their seat covers, but E-Leather was originally conceived for consumer products like footwear. After surveying the market opportunities, the manufacturer pivoted toward the aviation industry about a decade ago. To do that, it had to modify the composite structure to meet the flammability requirements of the FAA. “The leather fiber by itself does not meet that requirement, so we had to build that into our composite matrix, which is quite unique in our product,” Den Ouden explains.

While he’s heard of Modern Meadow’s bio-engineered leather and is following developments with interest, he’s yet to see a specific demand from his aviation customers for this type of product. “[Our aviation customers] obviously have to take into consideration a lot of public interest groups and market trends rather than just one specific trend. That’s why in transportation markets, the take-up on trends is often slower,” he says. But if the market is moving firmly in the direction of bio-engineered textiles, that can quickly change. 

“Patented Leather”  was originally published in the 8.1 February/March issue of APEX Experience magazine.