Biotech material startup Bolt Threads is looking to leave its mark in the climate change arena by creating an alternative to leather-based and faux-leather products made from plastics, starting with our shoes. Using Mylo, the aptly name material derived from mycelium, the root-like part of mushrooms, Bolt will produce a million square feet a year and come to market by the end of next year with product from the first-ever fabric that feels and even smells like leather but made from mushrooms.
Bolt CEO Dan Widemaier and his team chose to work with mycelium in part because it was feasible to make in huge quantities. Keep in mind, an increasing number of mushroom farms are starting to come online. A very rough calculation by Widmaier estimated that if all of the world’s current mushroom farms were converted to making mycelium for its leather, it would likely be possible to replace all of the leather on the planet. For now, as the startup grows, it’s working with mushroom farmers who want to diversify from food crops to make more money.
Investors obviously like the ESG story for using mushrooms as it plays against traditional tanneries and fits with a more “sustainable” environmental footprint. The concept also plays right into the hand of the plant-based meat crowd. In other words, those who are big of plant based meats and moving that direction are going to love the mushroom story which uses a technique that eliminates toxic chemicals like chromium. Because the material is a fungus and not an animal hide also means that fewer total chemicals are necessary. While most might be under the impression that the leather products we use today are naturally produced, the basic chemistry that is involved in taking a putrefying hide of a dead animal and turning it into something that won’t rot is actually about 40% chemistry and 60% animal hide. Since mycelium doesn’t rot, it doesn’t need to be preserved in the same way.
From what I understand, the company has already produced more than 5,000 iterations of the material, with the current version, finished and embossed like traditional leather, and I’m told it uncannily feels like the real thing. Mylo production and its possibilities have drawn the attention of some pretty big players in retail like Adidas, Lululemon, Kering, and Stella McCartney. According to reports, the brand will release two bags made with the material, and Adidas will release a Stan Smith concept sneaker next year. I should mention, while the leather will eventually come in many different forms, this first version is more limited, meaning just like Henry Ford once famously said “They can have any color they want, as long as it’s black right now.” (Source: FastCompany, standard.com, Boltthreads.com)