The leather goods industry is worth around $400 billion. From handbags to clothing, the industry uses subsidiary products from the primary sector. It also contributes to our global emissions. But what if you could create a leather equivalent from fungi?
That’s just what one New Zealand company, SaproTech, is setting out to do. Using the power of fungi, they are producing leather textiles produced from mycelium fibre.
“I’m very concerned about climate change and biodiversity loss. We need to change our farming systems as part of our climate change goals, particularly reducing large animals. One part of this is the production of leather.”
Keith combined his drive around finding more sustainable solutions for everyday items and his skills as a scientist to harness the ability of fungi to grow materials that can be used to replace leather and make this popular textile better for the planet.
“Our materials have a very natural feel and appearance, which is important when seeking to replace something. It uses low amounts of energy to produce, emits low amounts of carbon dioxide and no other toxic outputs like traditional leather production.”
Their production method is also unique, setting them apart from their key competitors in the United States.
The team is made up of Keith, David and Selwyn. Keith is a scientist with a background in biotechnology. Co-found Dr David Whittaker brings a wealth of agricultural biotechnology expertise. They have also joined up with Dr Selwyn York, who brings a great deal of commercial experience and connections to the team.
Their goal is simple: to be a major player in the leather textiles field. They are aiming for billion-dollar sales of materials that they have produced or licenced to others to make. When looking at where they started, it seems like a big leap, but like science, entrepreneurship is all about venturing into the unknown.
“You just have to have faith in your ability to deal with everything that comes and make better decisions going forward. Science and entrepreneurship are more alike than people think.”
From humble beginnings where they had to build their own lab to do some of the initial experiments to now, their priorities have evolved over time. When they started, they had question marks around what type of material they wanted to create. Initially, they thought they might look to start by creating alternative packaging materials.
“When we looked into it we decided that it wasn’t valuable enough, and we needed to look bigger. Textiles have a much greater value per kilogram, so we went down this route.”
Keith gave a rather uncommon answer when asked what he’d do differently if he had to start again. Nothing.
“It’s all part of the journey. A bit like fear and doubt. Being a scientist, you learn quickly that most difficult things don’t work out. You learn to cope with that and use the learnings to move forward. If you have a vision, have appropriate milestones and are sensible and structured in your approach, you’ll get to where you need to be.”
The team eyed up the Sprout Accelerator programme for its many opportunities and the fact it’s not focused on the clinical business side of things but rather encompassed all aspects of a business journey.
“For us, Sprout fit well with our desire to get seed capital and constructive feedback on what we were doing. It’s also about the connections. We want to meet people that can help us tell our story and achieve our goals.”
Find out more about Sprout Accelerator.