California-based biotechnology startup MycoWorks has created a fungal-based material used to replace leather.
Recently, the company secured £91.8 million in Series C funding, which will be put towards the creation of their manufacturing plant. The funding round was led by Prime Movers Lab, in collaboration with other investors. MycoWorks have currently amassed £137.4 million in total.
In an interview with TechCrunch, CEO Matt Scullin explained:
‘Mycelium is a tunable material, and a lot of folks are entering the space because they see opportunity for it. However, their main approach is taking fibers and embedding them in plastic, which results in a low-quality material like ‘pleather.’’
Much of the biomaterial currently being used in fashion is cheap, and the company’s ‘Fine Mycelium’ technology is being targeted towards luxury brands, being made-to-order and made-to-specification.
They also hope to expand in the future and create a wider range of scalable products, suitable for mass production.
In a written statement, David Siminoff of investor Prime Movers Lab announced:
‘What MycoWorks has achieved with its Fine Mycelium platform is not just a breakthrough, it is a revolution for industries that are ripe for change. This opportunity is massive and we believe that unrivaled product quality combined with a proprietary scalable manufacturing process has MycoWorks poised to serve as the backbone of the new materials revolution.’
The company utilises its ‘Fine Mycelium’ process to create its final product: the ‘Reishi’ biomaterial.
The base of the product is mycelium – the vegetative part of the fungus, which is white and thread-like in nature, found underneath the soil aiding mushroom growth.
Mycelium is extremely versatile – its form allows it to be engineered to grow into many forms, such as a meat substitute, building light fire-resistant structures, as well as a bonding agent.
The fungus is also abundant in nature, and growing it results in very minimal waste and energy consumption.
On their website, MycoWorks state:
‘Fine Mycelium engineers mycelium cells as they grow to create three-dimensional structures that are densely entwined and inherently strong’.
This is particularly innovative, differing from the more prevalent ‘Mushroom Leather’, in which uninterrupted mycelium is pressed into sheets of material. This offers less strength and customisability than their product, as well as animal leather.
As their process involves the controlled growth of the mycelium, designers are able to ask for specific designs and structures – giving textile artists free rein to create their final pieces.
The fashion industry is a large contributor to climate change, culpable for 8-10% of international carbon emissions. The popularity of fast fashion and low-quality, inexpensive garments also means that piles of clothes get discarded after minimal use, overwhelming landfills. These materials are also non-biodegradable, and the dyes and chemicals used in creating these garments can be hazardous to organisms. Additionally, plastics are often used to create our clothes – and runoff from this pollutes oceans. 13 million tonnes of synthetic fibres enter oceans every year.
A more specific need for biomaterials is the harvesting of leather. The material is made from the skin of animals, who are often treated inhumanely. The skins of endangered or protected animals, such as elephants, minks, snakes, zebras, and ostriches are also very valuable, being widely used in the fashion industry, garnering praise for their exclusivity. This places another target on vulnerable animal populations. As of 2021, the leather industry is worth nearly £200 billion worldwide. The material is not merely a byproduct of the meat industry as demand grows.
The fashion industry has proposed ‘vegan leather’ as a cheap solution to this. Production of this material utilises a third of the resources needed for real leather. It is most often made from polyurethane (PU) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). However, though they do not require the use of animal products, these plastic, artificial materials are not environmentally friendly either.
This is why companies such as MycoWorks are extremely integral. Using biodegradable, sustainable materials, there is no risk of environmental poisoning or animal exploitation. Such materials will lessen the burden of leather production. Many brands are starting to take notice of this, and are heading toward a greener future.
Though not vegan, the company Atlantic Leather has supplied material made of fish skin to luxury designer houses such as John Galliano, Prada, Christian Dior, and Louis Vuitton. H&M and Hugo Boss have also used pineapple leather for their shoes.
With the immaculate quality and malleability of their product, MycoWorks will undoubtedly soon attract the attention of big brands looking to operate more ethically.
About the Author: Shadine Taufik
Shadine Taufik is a contributing Features writer with expertise in digital sociology and culture, philosophy of technology, and computational creativity.