Thursday, June 20, 2024

Bio-Based Leather Industry Is a ‘Tidal Wave’: Uncaged Innovations Co-Founder Stephanie Downs

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Will the leather category go the way of the milk category, with sustainable and more ethical alternatives becoming the new normal? For Stephanie Downs, co-founder and CEO of Uncaged Innovations, there’s no doubt about it.

Following a $2 million Pre-Seed funding round last year, Uncaged Innovations, which makes “the world’s first” scalable bio-based sustainable grain leather, is eyeing rapid expansion, says Stephanie Downs, co-founder and CEO of the New York-based startup.

Leather is one of the most widely used materials; it’s found in the fashion, automotive, and furniture industries, among others. Uncaged’s goal is to disrupt all of them, by offering a material that looks, feels, and performs like conventional animal leather but without all of the environmental and ethical complications of the animal-based industry. Conventional leather is a co-product of the meat and dairy industries, which produce about 15 percent of total global emissions. With help from its proprietary software platform, Uncaged has identified key biomaterials that can bypass the impacts of animal agriculture as well as leather tanning and processing industries which are also leading polluters.

“The leather industry has long been one of the most resource-intensive industries in the world, requiring a 20-step process using toxic chemicals,” Downs told Ethos via email. Downs is both serial entrepreneur and activist; she worked for animal rights group PETA, playing a pivotal role in getting electric car manufacturer Tesla to offer vegan leather interiors. She’s also founded and exited several companies including Good Dot, India’s largest plant-based meat provider. With Uncaged Innovations, Downs sees an opportunity similar to the widespread adoption of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives. With Uncaged, she’s not just out to replace animal leather, but the unsustainable plastic materials that have long been the only real scalable “alternative” option.

woman in leather jacket
Photo courtesy Austin Wade

Like conventional leather, plastic-based materials pose environmental and ethical concerns; plastic is a leading cause of ocean pollution, contaminating the largest carbon sink on the planet and poisoning trillions of marine animals. Uncaged Innovations’ leather currently contains just one percent plastic (derived from corn). Downs says the Uncaged process “fuses plant proteins with other bio-based elements” for a leather that emits 95 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional leather. It also brings other environmental benefits; it uses 93 percent less water and 72 percent less energy. Perhaps most critically, Uncaged says its bio-based leather is price-competitive with animal leather.

According to Downs, there are many misconceptions surrounding alternative leather, which she says means customers still view sustainable alternatives as inferior to traditional animal leather. “What many people fail to recognize is that traditional leather itself is made up of as much as 20 percent plastic.” She says that despite being marketed as a ‘natural’ material, animal leather requires a plastic coating to be durable and the production process requires synthetic chemicals to be used. There is also a lot of skepticism around how environmentally friendly leather alternatives really are. “Our competitors that use mushroom and bacterial cellulose solutions still require the tanning process, which uses significant amounts of water and toxic chemicals, and solutions using cactus and other fruits use high levels of plastic,” Downs says.

Stephanie Downs, co-founder of Uncaged Innovations.
Stephanie Downs | Photo courtesy Uncaged Innovations

But Uncaged is different; its bio-leather is composed of a unique blend of elements that creates a light, durable, and flexible alternative to traditional leather. And, Downs says, it provides huge opportunities. “Whether it is altering the pigmentation, durability, texture, or even the fragrance, our luxury product can be used in a variety of markets — from subtle leather used for handbags, jewelry and apparel, structured leather for wallets or luggage, or performance leather to be used in automotives or footwear.”

Synthetic leather already makes up about 40 percent of the market ($65 billion compared to conventional leather’s $85 billion), Downs says. But “next-generation” leather such as mushroom and fruit or agricultural waste leather, is only currently valued at about $650 million. Downs says the trending shift away from plastic and toward biodegradable solutions is “a tidal wave that is going to shake the industry up substantially in the next decade.” But, she says, while demand for vegan leather is growing at a nearly 50 percent CAGR, many existing leather alternatives struggle to scale. “Even though legacy brands announce partnerships with innovative leather alternatives, they are slow to actually bring anything to market, failing to prevent the social and environmental harm caused by the traditional leather industry. What these brands are looking for is an affordable solution that is scalable, so that they can remain competitive after adopting the material.”

Downs says Uncaged’s bio-leather is formulated to fit into existing manufacturing processes meaning no additional equipment or training is needed, resulting in cost savings for businesses that allow them to stay competitive and sustainable. The startup can also produce thousands of meters of leather in a few days, which Downs says is a significant advantage for businesses that must move quickly to keep up with demand or meet tight production schedules. “This proven scalability means we’ve already partnered with Jaguar Land Rover, a household automotive company, with more to come.” InMotion Ventures — Jaguar Land Rover’s investment arm — led the platform’s $2 million pre-Seed round. (Other investors include VegInvest, Stray Dog Capital, Alwyn Capital, Hack Capital, and GlassWalls Syndicate.)

Range Rover PHEV
Courtesy Land Rover

One of the biggest challenges isn’t in the production or performance of Uncaged’s leather. Downs says it’s about perception — both from manufacturers and consumers. There’s still a pervasive misconception that alternative leather can’t have the same feel as animal leather.

“[T]his was a challenge we knew we had to address when creating our bio-material,” she says. “We needed to find innovative elements that could replace the plastic components, but still had the desired characteristics of luxury leather, such as durability and elasticity. We also had to ensure that the biomaterial was biodegradable, which added extra complexity to the development process, as we had to carefully choose and combine materials to promote decomposition without harming the environment.” Downs says after years of research and testing various ingredient combinations, Uncaged’s research and development team, which is headed up by the startup’s co-founder Dr. Xiaokun Wang, perfected a bio-based material that successfully mimics the quality of leather, making it biodegradable and toxic-free.  

Now, Uncaged is aiming to work with brands across industries. Chief among them is the fashion industry, which has made big shifts, like Ganni phasing out virgin leather and giants like Balenciaga and Gucci offering sustainable alterantives. But, Downs says the sector is still such a significant contributor to the climate crisis by its use of animal leather. “Supplying brands with our bio-leather material to incorporate into their existing manufacturing processes is a step in the right direction,” she says. “My ultimate goal is to transform every industry that relies on leather.”

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