Are mushrooms the future of alternative leather?
In 2007, Philip Ross, an artist based in the Bay Area, was preparing for an exhibition. He demonstrated his work with “mycotecture”, the creation of materials from the manipulation of mycelium, which is the substance that makes up the root structure of fungi. Mr Ross bought mushroom spores from local farmers and persuaded them to turn into a substance he describes as akin to medium-density fibreboard. In preparation for the exhibition, he met Sophia Wang, then a doctoral student. student at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped produce the show.
Mr. Ross continued to experiment with mycelium, and in 2012, after receiving inquiries from several companies interested in the technology, Mr. Ross asked Ms. Wang to join him in starting MycoWorks to commercialize his mycotecture technique. . They co-founded the company the following year, when Ms. Wang was completing her thesis.
At first, “there were three of us in a basement with plywood and plastic sheeting,” said Ms. Wang, who is now the company’s chief culture officer. “We were a biotech start-up, but we were created by artists.”
MycoWorks ultimately focused on creating a material that looked and felt like leather butwas free of animal parts. Called Reishi, after the Japanese name for the genus of mushrooms Mr. Ross first used, it can currently be produced in six-square-foot sheets. (MycoWorks declined to disclose pricing except to say that they are currently comparable to exotic skins. As the company continues to grow, they added, MycoWorks will be able to offer some at lower prices. lower.)
The company, headquartered in Emeryville, Calif., has been granted more than 75 patents and today has more than 160 employees in the United States, France and Spain. He’s also secured collaborations with high-end companies like Hermès and, more recently, furniture maker Ligne Roset and GM Ventures, the investment arm of General Motors.
If it continues to grow, MycoWorks has enormous potential: the leather goods market exceeded $400 billion in 2021 and is expected to exceed $720 billion by 2030.
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Then there’s the global synthetic leather materials market, which is expected to reach nearly $67 billion by 2030, according to Research and Markets, a source for data and analysis. The so-called bio-based leather market, which includes only materials of natural origin, was estimated to be around $650 million in 2021 by Polaris Market Research. But that number may be too low, according to Frank Zambrelli, executive director of the Responsible Business Coalition at Fordham University in New York, as well as chief executive of consulting firm Accenture. “I sincerely believe that they do not accurately reflect market and consumer interest in the category, nor advances in technology and quality of emerging products,” he said.
To date, many alternatives to leather are made from plastic, polyurethane, or polyvinyl chloride (better known as PVC), which sometimes yields the derisive term “leather.” But the bigger issue is that those that use plastic are generally unfriendly to the environment and don’t offer a sustainable option.
In contrast, MycoWorks “can achieve the same quality and performance as animal hides without the need for any kind of plastic,” said Matthew Scullin, managing director of MycoWorks, at a temporary exhibit in New York. in spring. Now too big to rely solely on local farmers for its mycelium supply, the company has its own strains which “we basically keep in cold storage,” Scullin said.
The process begins by combining the mycelium with sawmill waste in trays; as the sawdust breaks down, the mixture begins to expand into a thin sheet. The material can then be customized to meet customer specifications, including specific textures, and can include the addition of other fibers, such as cotton. Fine Mycelium, the brand name of its patented technology, is then finished by outside tanneries. (The tanning process does not use chromium, historically one of the most polluting parts of leather manufacturing.)
Because the process of creating Reishi involves just a few steps, Scullin said, it has a “low impact” on the environment. Plus, he said, while animal skins vary in size and texture, Reishi is more consistent and predictable for customers.
In August, MycoWorks opened a 150,000 square foot factory in Union, South Carolina. Once completed by the end of 2023, it will begin large-scale production – several million square feet of Reishi per year. The construction is supported by new investments. MycoWorks closed a new financing of $125 million in January. The new plant will allow the company to meet growing demand; Mr. Scullin says he has received thousands of inquiries from potential clients.
One client that has already onboarded Reishi is fashion house Hermès, which styles and tans the fabric (which it calls Sylvania) for use in its Victoria handbags. (The company declined to comment on the amount purchased or the price of the bag, which is no longer listed on its website, compared to one that used leather.)
Nick Fouquet, a Venice, Calif.-based designer hatter who is popular among celebrities, used Reishi in some of his hats this year. “I asked one of my seamstresses and she couldn’t tell the difference between reishi and real leather,” he said. He produced 50 bucket hats made entirely from the MycoWorks material, and for $810 they sold out. He said he hopes to use the fabric again in future seasons.
The auto industry also offers a huge opportunity, since, Scullin said, automakers are the second-largest users of leather, after shoes. Inquiries intensified last year as automakers began introducing new electric vehicles to the market, he added. The collaboration with GM Ventures, announced Oct. 18, “aims to advance the development of sustainable automotive materials,” Wade Sheffer, chief executive of GM Ventures, said in a statement. (The automaker declined to disclose the size of its investment.)
Although Mr Scullin did not provide further details, he said the deal “aims to not only change the durability profile of the cars, but also to modernize the supply chain of these materials”, so that they can be marketed more quickly. To that end, he said, he plans to start new factories to serve the automotive industry.
MycoWorks has competition. California-based Bolt Threads also produces a leather-like material made from mycelium and is attracting high-end customers at an impressive rate. Bolt works with Stella McCartney, known for her avoidance of animal products, as well as Adidas, Lululemon and Mercedes. Other materials scientists are experimenting with bio-based fabrics, including those incorporating pineapple and cactus.
Companies working with mycelium, Zambrelli said, “are not trying to replicate what animal skin does, but creating something that has the softness and resilience of leather, but something that is, of fascinating way, also more controllable”.
And the mycelium continues to be used in the visual arts, said Mr. Ross, the founder, who is now chief technology officer. At Mycoworks, Ms. Wang said, “Practice is most evident in the design and prototyping of our products. That’s how people here get really creative.