February 6, 2023

In 2007, Bay Area artist Philip Ross was preparing an exhibition. It showcases his work on “fungus construction,” the creation of materials by manipulating mycelium, the substance that makes up the structure of mushroom roots. Mr Ross bought mushroom spores from local farmers and coaxed them to grow into a substance he described as similar to MDF. While preparing for the exhibition, he met Sophia Wang, who was a PhD at the time. student at UC Berkeley, who helped him produce the show.

Mr. Ross continued to experiment with mycelium, and by 2012, after receiving requests from several companies interested in the technology, Mr. Ross invited Ms. Wang to join him mold factory Commercializes his fungal construction technology. They co-founded the company the following year while Ms Wang was finishing her dissertation.

“In the beginning, the three of us lived in a basement covered with plywood and plastic sheeting,” said Ms Wang, now the company’s cultural director. “We’re a start-up biotech company, but we’re created by artists.”

MycoWorks eventually focused on creating a material that had the look and feel of leather, but Does not contain animal parts. Called Ganoderma lucidum, named after the Japanese name for the mushroom genus first used by Mr. Ross, it can currently be produced in 6-square-foot plates. (MycoWorks declined to disclose the price, other than to say that it is currently comparable to exotic hides. They added that as the company continues to grow, MycoWorks will be able to offer some products at lower prices.)

Headquartered in Emeryville, California, the company has been granted more than 75 patents and currently employs more than 160 people in the United States, France and Spain. It has also forged partnerships with high-end companies such as Hermès and, more recently, furniture maker Ligne Roset and GM Ventures, the investment arm of General Motors.

If it continues to scale, MycoWorks has great potential: the leather goods market will exceed $400 billion in 2021, is expected to surpass $720 billion by 2030.

Then there is the global market for synthetic leather materials, this is expected That will reach nearly $67 billion by 2030, according to data and analysis source Research and Markets.The so-called bioleather market, which includes only natural materials, is estimated to about $650 million 2021, North Star Market Research. But that number may be too low, according to Frank Zambelli, executive director of the Responsible Business Alliance at Fordham University in New York and managing director of consulting firm Accenture. “I sincerely believe that they do not accurately reflect market and consumer interest in the category, nor do they reflect technological and quality advancements in emerging products,” he said.

To date, many leather alternatives have been made of plastic, polyurethane, or polyvinyl chloride (better known as PVC), sometimes giving rise to the derisive term “leather.” But the bigger problem is that those who use plastic are often not environmentally friendly and don’t offer sustainable options.

By contrast, MycoWorks “can achieve the same quality and performance as animal leather without any kind of of plastic”. The company is now too big to rely solely on local farmers for its supply of mycelium, so it has its own strains, which “we basically keep in cold storage,” Mr Sculling said.

The process begins by combining the mycelium with waste from the sawmill in pallets; as the sawdust breaks down, the mixture begins to turn into flakes. The material can then be tailored to meet customer specifications, including specific textures, and can include the addition of other fibers such as cotton. Fine Mycelium is the trade name for its patented technology, which is then finished by an external tannery. (The tanning process does not use chrome, which is historically one of the most polluting parts of leather manufacturing.)

Because there are only a few steps in the process of making reishi, it has a “low” environmental impact, Mr Scullin said. Plus, while animal skins vary in size and texture, reishi is more consistent and predictable for customers, he said.

In August, MycoWorks broke ground on a 150,000-square-foot facility in Union City, South Carolina. Upon completion by the end of 2023, it will begin mass production—millions of square feet of reishi each year. Construction is supported by new investment. MycoWorks closed $125 million in new financing in January. The new facility will allow the company to meet increased demand; Mr Scullin said it has already received thousands of inquiries from potential customers.

One of its customers is already taking ganoderma to fashion brand Hermès, which shapes and tans the fabric, which it calls Sylvania, for its Victoria handbags. (The company declined to comment on how many were purchased or the price of the bag, which no longer appears on their website compared to the bag in leather.)

Nick Fouquet, a Venice, California-based milliner 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 Fisherman’s hatMade entirely of MycoWorks material, it’s sold out for $810. He said he hopes to use the fabric again in future seasons.

The automotive industry also presents a huge opportunity, as Mr Scullin said carmakers are the second largest users of leather after footwear. He added that inquiries had increased in the last year as automakers began bringing new electric vehicles to market. The partnership with GM Ventures, announced on October 18, “is designed to advance the development of sustainable automotive materials,” said Wade Sheffer, GM Ventures managing director, said in a statement. (The automaker declined to disclose the size of its investment.)

While Mr Scullin would not provide any further details, he said the agreement “is aimed not only at changing the sustainability profile of cars, but also at modernizing the supply chains for these materials” so they can reach the market more quickly. To that end, he said, he envisions opening a new factory to service the auto industry.

MycoWorks has competition. Bolt threadThe California-based company is also producing a leather-like material made from mycelium, and it’s attracting high-end customers at breakneck speed.bolt is and Stella McCartney is known for avoiding animal products, along with Adidas, Lululemon and Mercedes. Other materials scientists are experimenting with bio-based fabrics, including those containing pineapples and cacti.

Companies using mycelium, says Mr Zambrelli, “are not trying to replicate the functionality of animal hide, they are creating something that has the suppleness and elasticity of leather, but which is also fascinatingly more manageable. .”

Founder Mr Ross, who is now CTO, said mycelium continues to be used in the visual arts. At Mycoworks, Ms. Wang said, “This practice is most evident in our product design and prototyping. This is how people here are really creative.”

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