Modern Meadow: Patenting Lab-Grown Leather
In 2017, New Jersey based biotech startup Modern Meadow launched Zoa™, which is inspired by leather and is the company’s first brand of biofabricated materials. Zoa™, a name derived from the Greek term for life, zoi, will feature products created with Modern Meadow’s proprietary technology. According to the Zoa website, Modern Meadow’s first generation of materials have “the ability to be any density, hold to any mold, create any shape, take on any texture, combine with any other material and be any size.”
So what is “biofabrication” and how does Modern Meadow imbue its materials with such unique properties? Modern Meadow’s website explains that the process starts at the DNA level - creating and multiplying tailored micro-organisms which are then assembled into various structures correlating to a range of different material properties. A peek into one the company’s pending patent applications provides additional insight into how it has approached manufacturing biofabricated materials and how it plans to succeed where others have failed.
There are more than ten published patent applications listing Modern Meadow as the Applicant with filing dates as early as March 28, 2012. One of Modern Meadow’s pending applications, Application No. 15/233802 (“’802 Application”), titled “Engineered leather and methods of manufacture thereof,” identifies the issues with synthetic leather, namely, that it lacks the “quality, durability, and prestige of natural leather.” Modern Meadow’s application is directed to “artificial leathers that replicate much of the structures and properties of natural leathers, but may be processed in a much simpler manner, and may address many of the problems of natural and previously-described artificial leathers.” Synthetic leather, fake leather, faux leather, pleather, leatherette, PU leather, and vegan leather are generally references to materials made using fossil fuels, such as a petroleum based plasticizer. Modern Meadow’s biofabricated materials are composed of collagen, the same protein as traditional leather, which makes the properties of the material more akin to real leather.
Figure 12 of the ‘802 application, shown above, provides a high-level overview of one method that Modern Meadow’s previously used to biofabricate artificial leather. First, a small skin sample is taken from an animal. Using the skin sample, cells from the animal are multiplied and cohered in a lab to form multicellular bodies that are deposited to form sheets or layers. The cell deposition into sheets facilitates production of an extracellular matrix (ECM), which includes collagen and further fuses the sheets. Once the sheets are sufficiently fused, the sheets may be stacked to form a single, layered body or a “hide” as shown in step (5) of figure 12, which further enables production of ECM. The hides may then be tanned, dyed, conditioned, or otherwise finished to imbue them with desirable functional and aesthetic properties. Finally, the finished hides can be fashioned into handbags, shoes, watches, or any other traditional leather product.
In an interview with Knobbe Martens, Modern Meadow’s Director of Communications, Jill Meisner, explained that the process described in Figure 12 of the ‘802 application was previously employed by the company, but that new processes have been developed to avoid using any animal parts. According to Jill, when Chief Technology Officer Dave Williamson joined Modern Meadow in 2015, the process was refined to be “100% animal free,” as yeast cells are now used to create collagen for biofabricated leather.
The current process starts with a naturally occurring strain of yeast obtained from cell banks. Cell banks are facilities that store cells from specific genomes for use in various products ranging from breweries making beer to pharmaceutical companies making insulin. Jill explained that, “[u]sing synthetic DNA, these ordinary yeast cells are transformed into little factories that churn out collagen, which is the main structural protein found in animal skin. We grow the collagen and assemble it into sheets. The sheet is then processed and can be tanned and fashioned into various products. In order to make certain commercial products, our biofabricated collagen may be combined with other animal-free, natural or man-made materials.”
The ‘802 application, along with several others directed to biofabricated leather production and uses, continues to undergo examination in the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Additionally, it appears that the company has increased its patent filings over the last two years, seeking to secure the technology that it believes will create eco-friendly, high-performance, and customizable artificial materials that revolutionize fashion and design.