Newlab member company Modern Meadow is creating real leather derived from yeast—no harm done to animals, and also better for the planet.
What does “natural” mean? There’s a tendency to imagine the natural world–dirt, bugs, lemurs–and, separately, the human world, with warheads, plastic bags, and Cheetos. But of course it’s all part of just one system: a tangled Indra’s net, and we’re figuring out how it all fits together. A smartphone is no less the product of a biological, physical process than a turnip.
Engineers and entrepreneurs are increasingly looking away from textbooks and to nature for inspiration for new products and design. Our bones contain architectural tricks that could strengthen skyscrapers. Sharkskin-inspired swimsuits made headlines during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, after world records were annihilated by swimmers wearing them. Labeling the biomimetic suits “Technology Doping,” the Olympic committee banned their use.
Newlab is home to a pair of companies that, each in its own way, are taking some of nature’s best inventions to the next level.
Leather is the ultimate signifier of sexiness. James Dean; Grace Jones. Hot. Less sexy? Uh, cow farts. Methane from cattle is an outsize contributor to global warming. Newlab member Modern Meadow envisions not only a less murderous process to make shoes and jackets—but a far less noxious and sustainable one. The team creates biofabricated leather material from lab-grown collagen, a protein found in animal skin. “The idea of leather itself, for us, is actually limiting because leather is essentially a found material, a byproduct of the meat industry,” says Modern Meadow’s chief creative officer Suzanne Lee.
She continues: “It comes in a predetermined size and shape. It comes with scars and scratches from the way the animals were raised. It’s an incredibly inefficient material when you’re trying to make a product because there’s so much waste, anywhere from 30 to 80 percent.”
Modern Meadow specializes in the oldest known programming language: DNA. Its lab induces yeast cells to grow collagen through a process they call biofabrication. And it’s not one-size-fits-all: a leather couch should be rigid; a handbag soft. Modern Meadow can customize the DNA instructions in their bio-factory to fit specific use cases. “When you’re growing collagen itself, that enables you to build materials in completely new ways,” Lee says. “What happens if you have leather in a liquid form?” Modern Meadow has done exactly this—creating a material that can be any density, hold any shape, and exist in both liquid and solid form.
In 2017, after five years of research and development, the company introduced the first generation of its biofabricated leather materials at the Museum of Modern Art. “Now the materials have new aesthetic and performance properties,” Lee says. But back to those gassy cows, for a moment. The production of a single pound of beef requires several thousand gallons of water, whereas cricket farming uses scarcely any.
Anyone passing the Brooklyn Navy Yard docks in the last year is likely to have glimpsed a white, spiked structure that could be mistaken for a punk-rock igloo. Instead, it’s a cricket shelter by Terreform One, Newlab’s only nonprofit futurist think-tank. Terreform works with clients to reimagine buildings, infrastructure and public spaces. What if we stopped attempting to halt rising sea levels and started designing Manhattan’s streets like Venice?
“Cities themselves, those are hundred year plans. My grad students’ grad students will be solving for that,” says Terreform co-founder Mitchell Joachim, an MIT and Harvard alum who now teaches at NYU. “But we develop these arguments to stand the test of time, and be teased and tweaked so that others can add their voices and adjust as these ideas go along.”
The cricket structure, teeming with tens of thousands of insects, is a reimagining of a standard emergency shelter. To solve for potential food shortages, the shelter houses both humans and crickets (a potent protein source that, by UN estimates, is eaten by over two billion people per year).
Today Terreform’s working with a construction group in Soho to design a building that “rewilds New York”: a seven-story structure with windowed walls that would function as a sanctuary for thousands of endangered monarch butterflies. Terreform has designed a sensing system to monitor the monarchs’ health on-site.
“We’re trying to train technology to care for an organism that’s very fragile,” Joachim says. He’s talking about butterflies, but might as well be speaking of the earth itself.
Photography by Rich Gilligan. This article was originally published in Tech Fancy Issue 3: Un/Natural Selection.