According to Po Bronson, the managing director of the venture capital firm SOSV’s IndieBio, "There is a lot of competition now in animal-free leather.” And he’s right; the vegan leather business is highly competitive and rapidly growing. In 2022, the market was valued at $61.5 million, and by 2030, it’s expected to meet $106.0 million.
From pineapple leaves and apple shavings to cork and mushroom fibers to, unfortunately, plastic, animal-free leather is made from a variety of materials. But, just as the lab-grown meat sector is slowly getting its legs, so is lab-grown leather, which feels like a thing, but slaughter-free, and without the climate footprint of the leather industry. On top of the sustainability aspects, the startup says its version is stronger than animal leather while retaining its “natural drape,” and due to its material ecosystem, is a circular product, that can be returned to the Earth at the end of its life.
According to the startup, there’s been a growing embrace of its biomaterial. The innovative material was unveiled earlier this month during Paris Fashion Week at the Balenciaga Summer 24 show Paris Fashion Week, and since the startup has cultivated a partnership with Balenciaga, creating a bathrobe coat, which marked the first use of Lunaform in the fashion industry.
SOSV was the first investor of Gozen, a San Fransisco-based “biocreation” startup founded by the fashion designer, Ece Gozen. And while the market is competitive, Bronson said he believes “that Gozen’s approach could surpass all others in both performance and economics.”
“We’ve already demonstrated this by launching our first commercial product – at Fashion Week, no less,” he added in a statement, “We’ve accomplished in months what it’s taken others years to do.”
In addition to disrupting fashion, by providing an alternative for leather boots and handbags akin to the real thing, Gozan also hopes to use its lab-grown leather to disrupt the automotive and home furnishing industries. The seed round, which was to the tune of $3.3 million, was led by Happiness Capital, with participation from Accelr8, Astor Management, and SOSV.
“At GOZEN, we produce advanced biomaterials with the potential to unlock circular design. With this investment, we've shown that we have a path to delivering on that potential at scale,” Ece Gozen, who is also the CEO of the company, said in a statement.
According to Gozen, the funding will be used to create new materials and accelerate the research, development, and scaling of its flagship biomaterial, Lunaform, a biomaterial that’s produced through the fermentation of microorganisms. As Ece Gozen explained via TechCrunch, “We are using a fermentation transplantation system which creates the material in just 10 days. The formulation becomes solid, so we then harvest that. This is microbial cellulose, a different type of cellulose.”
The resulting material is “super strong and super thin,” she explained, and with a “unique texture,” she says it has no plastic or toxic chemicals in it and is also manufactured through a completely vegan method.
According to Gozen, the reason the material is so strong is that unlike plant-based leathers, which are comprised of multiple layers, Lunaform is one single, durable layer. Gozen isn’t the only one going to the lab to make leather. Others include VitroLabs, which cultivates leather from cells to replicate the structure of animal hides and is backed by the luxury fashion maker, Kering, and Gelatex Technologies, a company that makes, cultured meat, a scaffold for 3D cell culture and tissue engineering, and has a nanofiber production technology that has applications across industries. At the core of its leather and company, is the animal waste, gelatin.
Gozen hopes that as it scales, it will inspire a “ripple effect” in the space. Currently, Gozen produces its material in 13 square-foot sheets, and with its plans to open a new facility in Turkey, it hopes to be producing one million square feet annually.
With Balenciaga already on board, the startup anticipates that this trend will become a catalyst, “encouraging other brands to adopt eco-conscious materials and practices.”