Roam Free, Bessie: Startup Creates Leather in the Lab

With the global demand for leather up while supply is down, this product could be popular with others besides vegans and cows. Mark Hoffler/EyeEm/Getty Images

If you love the look and feel of a soft leather clutch but can't stomach the thought of cow suffering, take heart: A no-slaughter leather company has just secured more than $53 million in funding. Startup Modern Meadow grows collagen in labs using living cells, which they'll then turn into different types of leather hides. Collagen is the fundamental protein found in all types of animal skins.

Modern Meadow calls its process of creating a leather "hide" from collagen "biofabrication." The company starts off with skin cells from an animal and edits the cell DNA to manufacture the type of collagen that is needed.

"We can produce cow collagen, alligator collagen — any kind of collagen using the toolkit of biotechnology," co-founder and CEO Andras Forgacs told Tech Insider.

The cells multiply and create collagen molecules that form into networks of fibers. Using some proprietary techniques, the company is able to turn the fibers into hides, which are tanned and finished in an environmentally friendly process. The result is pain-free leather products that are the biological equivalent of authentic hides, and hopefully a significant improvement over other synthetic leather alternatives.

Besides diverting animals from slaughterhouse to pasture, the technology aims to dramatically improve the ecological impact of the leather industry. Tanning hides requires toxic chemicals, and Modern Meadow say its tanning techniques use 80 percent less of those than traditional leather tanning does.

The company's also looking to reduce leather waste, a frequent problem thanks to naturally occurring imperfections and scraps rendered unusable once the desired shape is cut out. (Some 30-50 percent of leather is wasted.) Modern Meadow's technology should eliminate this waste because the company will be able to manufacture according to desired size specifications. With the global demand for leather up and supply down, there could be a big market for this product beyond vegans.