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Lab-Grown Leather Backed by Kering, Leonardo DiCaprio

VitroLabs raised a $46 million Series A from investors including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Kering to scale lab-grown leather.

On Wednesday, Milpitas, Calif.-based VitroLabs announced the funding, led by U.K. biotech venture capital firm Agronomics, Bestseller’s Invest FWD innovation arm, Khosla Ventures, New Agrarian, and Regeneration.VC in addition to the Gucci owner and “Catch Me If You Can” star.

Kering, whose portfolio includes Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen, began working with VitroLabs last year, and will lend its expertise in quality testing, tanning and finishing the lab-created leather. Kering chief sustainability and institutional affairs officer Marie-Claire Daveu said innovation is a key tenet of the company’s sustainability strategy, along with “actively looking for alternative materials that can reduce our environmental impact over the long term.”

Advancements are “key to addressing the sustainability challenges that the luxury industry is facing, which is why we are very interested in the potential of biomaterials such as cultivated leather,” she said.

Founded in 2016, VitroLabs has focused on building a scalable engineering platform for lab-grown tissue made from a small number of starter animal cells. Over the past six years, the Bay Area startup has worked to produce real, sustainably produced and virtually cruelty-free leather that matches traditional leather’s hand-feel, aesthetic and performance qualities. Animal-harvested cells are nurtured in a nutrient-rich, growth-fostering environment. The new financing will help VitroLabs scale pilot production and bring the innovation to market by next year.

“At a time when environmental stewardship is more important than ever, biotech companies have the opportunity to lead the way in changing how we produce materials and build supply chains,” CEO and co-founder Ingvar Helgason said, adding that VitroLabs has been working with artisans and craftspeople to disrupt the $400 billion leather goods industry. “By launching the first production of cultivated leather, we’ll hit a major milestone in fulfilling our mission to lead the shift towards a more sustainable future.”

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VitroLabs designed a proprietary, large-scale tissue cultivator advancing its progress in optimizing product quality and scaling production, Helgason said. Last fall, it opened a new 45,000-square-foot facility with laboratory space and room for pilot production.

Co-founder and stem-cell scientist Dr. Dusko Ilic said that over the past two years, the company has worked to optimize tissue production through its engineering platform, “to obtain the look, feel and performance of traditional leather at scale.” Several breakthroughs in bioprocess, bioreactor design and cell culture development will drive VitroLabs “towards the ultimate goal of industrialization,” he added.

“There has been an explosion of companies that are developing alternative materials to leather,” Helgason said, from materials made from microorganisms to plant-based alternatives that mimic a hide’s look and feel. But believes in VitroLabs’ ability to create real leather that retains the qualities that the industry and shoppers have come to expect, “while eliminating the most environmentally and ethically detrimental aspects of the conventional leather manufacturing process.”

The alternative leather business is seeing considerable attention. In June 2021, Gucci unveiled a 77 percent plant-derived leather alternative two years in the making, developed using viscose, wood pulp and biobased polyurethane extracted from corn. Hermès teamed with Mycoworks to offer its Victoria bag in mushroom-based leather, and earlier this year, the latter received $125 million to scale its alt-leather at a South Carolina factory. Last month, Everlane re-released its bestselling Day Market tote in plant-based polymer Bio-Tex.

Many companies are backing away from some animal-derived materials. Following Gucci’s 2017 decision to stop using fur, Kering made the decision to ban its use companywide, phasing it out completely by the end of this year. Burberry, Prada, Chanel, Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Saks Fifth Avenue have also announced plans to drop fur from their collections. However, exotic animal skins still appear in these companies’ collections.

Tengiva takes off

Another industry innovator also attracted funding this week.

Claiming to be the first digital supply chain platform for the textile industry, Montreal’s Tengiva announced Wednesday that it has raised $3.86 million in seed funding from the Ecofuel Fund, which specializes in clean technology startups, as well as Inovia Capital, angel investors at Anges Québec, Active Impact Investments and venture capital firm N49P. The round includes $1.3 million from the Québec Innovation Investment Program, along with a $100,000 grant from the Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) Seed Funding program.

Tengiva’s digital textile exchange network modernizes the paper purchase order-driven textile sourcing experience. Product teams and designers can browse and buy fabrics on an e-commerce-like interface, filtering results by pattern, color, fiber content, material type, price, inventory quantity and supplier, and even choose from overproduced fabrics or from new and innovative offerings.

Tengiva's online interface allows buyers to search for fabrics using a number of criteria.

“The textiles industry is one of the oldest in the world, with the manufacture and trade of fabrics dating back thousands of years,” co-founding CEO Annie Cyr said. “While consumers today can easily purchase fashion products online from any clothing brand worldwide, the supply chain that enables the flow of textiles from mill to fabric manufacturer to apparel brand has not kept pace.” Tengiva aims to bring the industry into the 21st century by streamlining and automating sourcing and distribution processes that usually take weeks or months, she added.

The platform allows brands to directly purchase textiles in the quantities they need, Cyr said, while giving suppliers the opportunity to build an online presence and develop relationships. Currently, 300 different materials from 30 countries are sold on site, with photos highlighting a fabric’s texture and weave. The new funding will further Tengiva’s plans to expand globally, build a state-of-the-art warehouse and further commercialize the platform to facilitate buyer-supplier interaction.

The site also aims to further transparency by centralizing and structuring access to data from textile manufacturers. The goal is to promote better practices in textile development, from calculating CO2 emissions to developing fabrics with an eye toward material combination recyclability and lowering overall environmental impact and chemical usage. Providing this data will help brands further their sustainability goals, and incentivize suppliers to double down on their efforts to reduce environmental impact.

This potential is what drove the Ecofuel Fund, Canada’s largest climate tech fund, to invest. “With 7.2  percent of global climate impact caused by textile production alone, Tengiva platform is the key to better act on significant gaps in the supply chain,” Ecofuel managing partner Johanne Sevigny said. “Leveraging their expertise, they have created a purpose-built platform for the industry that not only solves some of the sustainability challenges faced by the sector but has also attracted early interest from the world’s most notable textile mills and apparel brands.”