In 2007, Philip Ross, an artist based mostly within the Bay Space, was making ready for an exhibit. It demonstrated his work with “mycotecture,” the creation of supplies from the manipulation of mycelium, which is the substance comprising the basis construction of mushrooms. Mr. Ross purchased mushroom spores from native farmers and coaxed them to develop right into a substance he describes as akin to medium-density fiberboard. Getting ready for the exhibit, he met Sophia Wang, then a Ph.D. scholar on the College of California, Berkeley, who helped him produce the present.
Mr. Ross continued to experiment with mycelium, and by 2012, after receiving requests from a number of firms within the expertise, Mr. Ross requested Ms. Wang to hitch him in beginning MycoWorks to commercialize his mycotecture method. They co-founded the corporate the next 12 months, whereas Ms. Wang was ending her dissertation.
On the outset “there have been three of us in a basement with plywood and plastic sheeting,” mentioned Ms. Wang, who’s now the corporate’s chief of tradition. “We have been a start-up biotech firm, however we have been created by artists.”
MycoWorks ultimately centered on creating a fabric that had the appear and feel of leather-based however was freed from animal components. Known as Reishi, after the Japanese identify for the genus of mushrooms Mr. Ross first used, it may possibly presently be produced in sheets of six sq. toes. (MycoWorks declined to reveal pricing besides to say that it’s presently comparable with unique hides. As the corporate continues to develop, they added, MycoWorks will be capable to supply some at decrease costs.)
The corporate, whose headquarters are in Emeryville, Calif., has obtained greater than 75 patents and now has over 160 staff in the US, France and Spain. It has additionally secured collaborations with high-end firms like Hermès and, most lately, the furnishings maker Ligne Roset and GM Ventures, the funding arm of Basic Motors.
If it continues to scale up, MycoWorks has monumental potential: The leather-based items market exceeded $400 billion in 2021 and is predicted to surpass $720 billion by 2030.
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Then there’s the worldwide marketplace for artificial leather-based supplies, which is predicted to succeed in virtually $67 billion by 2030, based on Analysis and Markets, a supply for knowledge and evaluation. The so-called bio-based leather-based market, which incorporates solely naturally occurring materials, was estimated at roughly $650 million in 2021 by Polaris Market Analysis. However that quantity could also be too low, based on Frank Zambrelli, the chief director of the Accountable Enterprise Coalition at Fordham College in New York, in addition to a managing director on the consulting agency Accenture. “I sincerely consider they aren’t precisely reflecting market and shopper curiosity within the class, nor the advances within the expertise and high quality of the merchandise rising,” he mentioned.
So far, lots of the leather-based alternate options are made out of the plastics, polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride (higher generally known as PVC), generally ensuing within the derisive time period “pleather.” However the extra substantial difficulty is that these utilizing plastic are usually environmentally unfriendly and don’t present a sustainable choice.
In distinction, MycoWorks “can obtain the identical high quality and efficiency as animal leathers with out the necessity for any form of plastics,” Matthew Scullin, MycoWorks’ chief government, mentioned at a brief exhibition showroom in New York within the spring. Now too giant to rely solely on native farmers for its provide of mycelium, the corporate has its personal strains which “we principally hold in chilly storage,” Mr. Scullin mentioned.
The method begins by combining the mycelium with waste from sawmills in trays; because the sawdust decomposes, the combination begins to turn into a skinny sheet. The fabric can then be personalized to fulfill purchasers’ specs, together with particular textures, and may embody the addition of different fibers, like cotton. The Positive Mycelium, the trademarked identify for its patented expertise, is then completed by exterior tanneries. (The tanning course of doesn’t use chromium, traditionally one of the polluting components of leather-based manufacturing.)
As a result of the method for creating Reishi has just a few steps, Mr. Scullin mentioned, it has a “low affect” on the setting. As well as, he mentioned, whereas animal hides fluctuate in measurement and texture, Reishi is extra constant and predictable for purchasers.
In August, MycoWorks broke floor on a 150,000-square-foot plant in Union, S.C. Upon completion by the tip of 2023, it can begin producing at scale — a number of million sq. toes of Reishi per 12 months. The development is supported by new investments. MycoWorks closed on $125 million in new funding in January. The brand new manufacturing facility will permit the corporate to fulfill growing demand; Mr. Scullin says that it has had 1000’s of inquiries from potential purchasers.
One consumer that has already included Reishi is the style home Hermès, which kinds and tans the material (which it calls Sylvania) to make use of in its Victoria purses. (The corporate declined to touch upon how a lot it bought or the value of the bag, which is now not featured on their web site, compared with one which used leather-based.)
Nick Fouquet, a designer hatmaker based mostly in Venice, Calif., who’s common amongst celebrities, used Reishi in a few of his hats this 12 months. “I requested considered one of my seamstresses and he or she couldn’t inform the distinction between Reishi and actual leather-based,” he mentioned. He produced 50 bucket hats made solely of the MycoWorks materials and, priced at $810, they bought out. He mentioned he hoped to make use of the material once more in future seasons.
The automotive trade additionally presents an enormous alternative, since, Mr. Scullin mentioned, automotive producers are the second-largest-user of leather-based, after footwear. Inquiries ramped up final 12 months as carmakers started introducing new electrical autos into the market, he added. The collaboration with GM Ventures, introduced Oct. 18, “goals to advance the event of sustainable automotive supplies,” Wade Sheffer, managing director of GM Ventures, mentioned in an announcement. (The carmaker declined to reveal the scale of its funding.)
Whereas Mr. Scullin wouldn’t present any additional particulars, he mentioned the settlement “is meant to vary not solely the sustainability profile of automobiles but additionally to modernize the availability chain for these supplies,” in order that they will get to market quicker. To that finish, he mentioned, he envisions beginning new crops to service the automotive trade.
MycoWorks has competitors. Bolt Threads, based mostly in California, can also be producing a leather-based like materials made out of mycelium and is attracting high-end purchasers at a formidable charge. Bolt is working with Stella McCartney, recognized for her avoidance of animal merchandise, in addition to Adidas, Lululemon and Mercedes. Different materials scientists are experimenting with bio-based materials, together with these incorporating pineapple and cactus.
The businesses working with mycelium, Mr. Zambrelli mentioned, “will not be making an attempt to duplicate what an animal disguise does however are creating one thing that has the softness and resiliency of leather-based, however one thing that’s, fascinatingly, additionally extra controllable.”
And mycelium continues for use within the visible arts, Mr. Ross, the founder, who’s now chief expertise officer, mentioned. At Mycoworks, Ms. Wang mentioned, “the follow is most evident in our product design and prototyping. That’s how folks listed below are actually getting inventive.”