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This startup raises $46M to make lab-grown and cell-cultivated leather


Kering SA, the parent company of labels like Gucci and Saint Laurent, has invested $46M in a California-based startup, VitroLabs that makes cell-cultivated leather.

VitroLabs Inc. creates cellular-cultivated leather that is similar to animal hides in structure. It plans to use the funds to expand its operations, with pilot manufacturing set to begin this spring, according to the company. The Series A funding will further be utilised to expand the scientific, manufacturing, and business development teams in order to expedite commercialization.

BESTSELLER’s Invest FWD, global luxury giant Kering, Khosla Ventures, actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, New Agrarian, and Regeneration.VC are among the investors in the Series A round. Kering also continues to work with VitroLabs to provide assistance with product quality testing, tanning, and finishing.

Nitty gritties

The company is the latest to receive investment from investors to develop alternative materials that mimic animal goods. This year, the industry is enjoying a surge in growth as businesses demand more environmentally friendly solutions. According to the nonprofit Material Innovation Initiative, the 95 companies in the field raised an estimated $980M last year, more than doubling the amount in 2020.

More than half of the companies were founded after 2014, and the bulk of them, like VitroLabs, are focused on developing leather-like materials from mushroom roots (mycelium), pineapples, cactus, other organic substances, or stem-cell technologies. Others are interested in silk and wool materials.

“At a time when environmental stewardship is more important than ever, biotech companies have the opportunity to lead the way in changing how we produce materials and build supply chains, working hand in hand with existing artisans and craftspeople who are the cornerstone of the $400B leather goods industry,” says CEO Helgason. “By launching the first production of cultivated leather, we’ll hit a major milestone in fulfilling our mission to lead the shift towards a more sustainable future.” 

Manufacturing process

VitroLabs, based in Milpitas, California, was launched in 2016  by Dusko Ilic and Ingvar Helgason and is working on a scalable tissue engineering platform for the efficient and environmentally friendly manufacture of leather from only a few cells. VitroLabs is on a mission to make cell cultured leather that has the look, feel, and performance of traditional leather at a commercial scale by combining superior tissue engineering technologies with unique advancements.

Precision fermentation is also being used to create cheese and milk replacements, but lab-grown leather may encounter fewer regulatory hurdles than farmed foods in getting to market. 

VitroLabs claims to be the first alternative materials startup to receive investment from a large luxury group like Kering. The fundraising round also included Agronomics Ltd. and celebrity Leonardo DiCaprio.

Co-Founder and stem cell scientist Dr. Dusko Ilic says: “Over the last two years, we have been laser-focused on pushing our tissue engineering platform in order to increase efficiency and to optimize tissue production to obtain the look, feel, and performance of traditional leather at scale.  With several major breakthroughs in the areas of bioreactor design, bioprocess and facility design, and cell culture development, we are now on our way to a scalable process that delivers the desired premium qualities, forging a path towards the ultimate goal of industrialization.”  

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