As part of our new book “What’s Your Bio Strategy?” we’ve interviewed dozens of entrepreneurs, business leaders and academics working on synthetic biology. The following is an excerpt from one of those interviews. To find out when the book goes on sale subscribe to our newsletter here.
When you look at the synthetic biology community, there are companies manufacturing genes, developing computational tools, and creating cloud labs and automation tools. Others are engineering organisms and developing applications using living materials. The definition includes companies that use biology to fabricate things – biofabrication companies.
Brooklyn-based Modern Meadow grew out of the ground-breaking tissue and organ printing company, Organovo. Some of the tools developed at Organovo were originally used by the company to create meat and leather. As the company progressed, its focus became leather materials. Andras Forgacs is the Founder and CEO.
KARL SCHMIEDER: How do you summarize what Modern Meadow does?
ANDRAS FORGACS: We combine innovations at different scales – both the subcellular and macroscopic levels.
Many synthetic biology companies are focused on creating small molecules, proteins, or enzymes by using tools that work at a subcellular level. That is a substantial component of our product but that’s only part of the process. We also work at the macroscopic level, organizing collagen proteins so we can create new leather materials with a higher order structure than what is available from animals.
JOHN CUMBERS: You were one of the co-founders of Organovo – that was also a biofabrication company. Why didn’t Organovo focus on creating materials?
ANDRAS FORGACS: Organovo pioneered tissue engineering, a specific type of biofabrication that uses mammalian cells to create higher order structures. The company didn’t work at the subcellular level. It does not focus on genetically modifying cells and does not combine cell engineering with the tissue engineering. So making different materials would be out of scope for Organovo.
KARL SCHMIEDER: Explain how your Organovo experience lead to starting Modern Meadow?
ANDRAS FORGACS: Two things happened. First, people who knew the company started asking if we could do other things with the biofabrication technology. They asked, If you can print skin in three dimensions, could you make muscle and use it to test drugs? If you can biofabricate skin, can you produce hide for leather? If you can print muscle, could you make meat? Those projects were out of scope for Organovo, but the questions were intriguing.
Second, I went to China where I saw how animal products – either worn or consumed – were a gigantic industry dependent on multiple externalities. Animal products grew more expensive every year I was in China. Quality issues were abundant and the environmental impact was significant. I started to wonder if Organovo’s technologies had broader applications beyond medicine.
Large leather buyers familiar with my work at Organovo were calling and asking, If you can grow skin, can’t you make leather? That was out of scope for Organovo but when you’re an entrepreneur and you get enough of those calls, you start to think there is a new business to form and you figure it out.
It so happens a few of the scientists who had developed the technology were available to work on other projects. My experience is that a new company or new idea typically comes from a combination of three things: technology, team, and opportunity. It’s usually one of those that starts the process and begins the virtuous cycle of getting the others.
In this case, we had an insight on a technology. We had an exceptional team. And, we were being given an exceptional opportunity. We applied for and received Small Business Innovation Research funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation. We got early-stage funding from Breakout Labs, then got involved with Singularity University. We continued to refine the technology, expanded the team with different capabilities, and have arrived at the biofabrication process we are using today.
JOHN CUMBERS: You pivoted away from producing food. How has the company and the technology changed?
ANDRAS FORGACS: At the beginning we were focused on both creating food and materials. Of course, the press loves the most sensational part of the story, so if you’re focused on producing food and materials, they’re going to focus on food because that gets the most reactions.
What we did at the beginning was based on my previous experiences with biology and bio-entrepreneurship. We focused on integrating cell engineering and tissue engineering to create meat and leather. As we iterated, we realized the opportunity for leather materials was significant enough and an exciting challenge on its own, so we made that the focus of Modern Meadow.
What we’re doing now is very different from when we started. We’re no longer as literal about tissue engineering. That’s why we say we are a biofabrication company. We use biology on the front end and combine it with several other disciplines – biological engineering, material science, chemistry, and process design. All of those disciplines work at different scales, on different levels.
Our entire focus as a company is to create the right structure of the collagen that makes up the leather. We’ve evolved the technology to produce the collagen in a way that is economically scalable and creates the highest quality material.
Our technology is getting better every day. We’re have more control over the performance properties of our materials and the aesthetics are better. In addition, by focusing on biofabrication at a large scale, we are improving the technical economics.
KARL SCHMIEDER: Biofabrication is a relatively new idea. How does it impact supply chains and the environment?
ANDRAS FORGACS: The livestock industry is very resource intensive. It requires huge amounts of land. It consumes water and food. It’s one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
I was highly motivated to create a product that could be used everyday, that everybody could relate to, and that could make a dent in the way we use our planet’s resources. The fact that we can impact animal welfare and the environment is important to me. So, we’re helping create a cleaner supply chain and deliver materials that do not require as much chemical processing.
KARL SCHMIEDER: How do you think biotechnology impacts consumers every day?
ANDRAS FORGACS: Consumer awareness of biotechnology is low but that’s changing. Biology is becoming part of a brand’s story. You’re already seeing this with companies like Impossible Foods and the spider silk companies Bolt Threads, Amsilk and Spiber.
What’s interesting is biotechnology itself has the potential to be the headline, an important headline, because it can deliver important benefits to the product and consumers. Biology has the ability to create product attributes that are not possible using conventional manufacturing methods. Biofabrication also offers environmental benefits. That’s a differentiator that can be an important part of the brand story.
Remember, consumers aren’t just buying products for what they are. Certainly, that’s an important part of the purchase decision. But consumers are also buying products based on how they are made, the story behind them, and the experience associated with a brand.
Over the next several years, companies are going to offer products where the story is the virtue – biofabrication – as well as the characteristics created through biology. That will be an important part of the brand. That is totally new. In the consumer space, biology has the potential to be a game changer.