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Leather Alternative Scales in World’s First Bacterial Cellulose Facility

Another next-generation leather alternative is jostling for a piece of the fast-growing vegan-friendly market.

Polybion, a Spanish and Mexican firm, announced Tuesday the launch of the world’s first bacterial cellulose facility, where it will scale up the production of a cellulosic material derived from agro-industrial fruit waste.

Based in Irapuato, the industrial center of Mexico, the solar-powered, carbon-neutral facility will be able to churn out 1.1 million square feet of Celium at maximum capacity, the company said. With its “unique, high-performance” characteristics, the biotextile is poised to become the “new gold standard” for fashion, sportswear and automotive applications, it added.

“Scaling the production of Celium, a sustainable alternative to animal-based textiles and petroleum-derived synthetics, is a huge step on Polybion’s mission to bring performance and possibility to 21st-century designers and materials engineers,” Axel Gómez-Ortigoza, Polybion’s co-founder and CEO, said in a statement.

The announcement follows the company’s closure of a $4.4 million Series A financing round led by Blue Horizon, a Zurich-based venture firm that invests in sustainable food systems. Polybion plans to use the new funds to build out the facility, increase R&D efforts and bring Celium to market in the form of consumer goods.

“We are excited to partner with Blue Horizon, as we share a common vision on accelerating sustainability and the circular economy,” said Gómez-Ortigoza, who founded Polybion with his brother Alexis. “In addition, having Blue Horizon as a partner allows us to scale new initiatives to build our brand and network.”

Harnessing waste as raw material and designing, producing and finishing products under the same roof are the “North Stars” of Polybion’s long-term strategy, he added. In time, the firm will roll out other materials as well.

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Tanmay Annachhatre, Blue Horizon principal, praised Polybion for its speed in creating a “completely circular” material. Polybion expects to hit full throttle by the third quarter of 2023 to fulfill a demand that has seen brands from Lululemon to Hermès clamor for cow-free hides made from mushroom roots, pineapple leaves or cactus fronds.

“We are happy to partner with Polybion and join Alexis, Axel, and the rest of this great team on their journey to create new and fully sustainable materials,” Annachhatre said. “Consumers, brands and manufacturers are all seeking novel, sustainable materials.”

Investors are showing an increasing appetite for novel materials. Since 2015, more than $1.3 billion has gushed into the next-generation space, according to the Materials Innovation Initiative, a California think tank.

So far, the trend shows no sign of bottoming out: Bucha Bio, a Texas company, announced in October $550,000 in funding to scale up Mirai, a biomaterial made by fermenting bacterial nanocellulose. And in January, mycelium-leather startup MycoWorks revealed a $125 million investment that will allow it to establish its first full-fledged facility in South Carolina.