Here's a crazy idea: Combine 3-D printing and tissue engineering to "print" animal products and tackle some of the planet's biggest problems. Animal farming, after all, accounts for about half of all human-caused greenhouse gases, taking place on one-third of the available, non-frozen land on Earth. All to feed people's appetites for 300 million tons of meat a year.
Enter Gabor and Andras Forgacs, father-and-son founders of Modern Meadow, a company they started in 2011 that may very well be the model for the farm of the future.
Five years earlier they helped start Organovo, a firm that makes human tissues for pharmaceutical research and other medical applications, and was a commercial spinoff of Gabor's pioneering work at the University of Missouri in "bioprinting," which he describes as "extending biological structures in three dimensions." Modern Meadow's output is based in part on this work. On a basic level, the process involves using 3-D printing to deposit clumps of cells into patterns of tissue. The particles fuse post-printing--similar to cell development in embryos. Unlike Organovo's final products, which must be kept alive, Modern Meadow's postmortem animal tissues are simpler to build and faster to market.
Leather, a $60 billion trade globally, is first on the agenda. "What we build is skin, or hide, and we do this elaborate game to turn it into leather," explains Gabor, who serves as chief scientific officer of Modern Meadow, which is based in Columbia, Mo., and Moffett Field, Calif. A prototype material will debut later this year, so the company is currently focused on building out commercial relationships. "Our goal after that is to be able to do a limited production run and to incorporate [the leather] into fashion accessories and apparel in 2014," says Andras, CEO. "Then, it's all about scaling."
Interest has been resounding. Large manufacturers and designers of apparel and accessories--even automotive manufacturers--stand to benefit from a more efficient leather supply chain. For consumers, fabricated leather could alleviate environmental and animal-welfare concerns.
Meat is a longer-term project but should have similar financial blessings. On the research side the company has garnered equally keen interest, winning competitive grants from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and scoring funding from organizations like Peter Thiel's Breakout Labs. "The grants were approved and awarded with the speed of light," Gabor says, noting how extraordinary it is for research to be backed with such "glowing fanfare." To date, Modern Meadow has received $2 million in funding, an amount that should skyrocket as the company completes its prototypes and pursues further phases of grant funding from Small Business Innovation Research. "It illustrates where we stand," Gabor declares, "that what we are doing is timely, we have the right reputation, and it is of interest to society."
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