Another week, another major investor announcement in the materials science space: MycoWorks has gained investment from GM Ventures: the VC arm of American car manufacturer General Motors. The venture funding follows their oversubscribed Series C funding round, which raised $125M in January this year.
Deployed from their headquarters in Emeryville, California, the announcement heralds a new chapter in the industrial application of the company’s Fine Mycelium (FM) material, which is grown from a substrate1 containing Mycelium and sawdust (Mycelium is the “starter” or “seed” which MycoWorks adds to sawdust to grow the material). There is no other substance in the substrate, they explained (dispelling confusion around whether the material may contain synthetic polymers). The FM then grows in sterile, custom shaped and temperature-controlled trays.
The investment from GM Ventures secured joint R&D in an industrial partnership seeking to develop a Fine Mycelium that best suits the replacement of animal leather interiors in GM cars. GM Ventures and MycoWorks declined to state the deal’s investment sum or specifics. However, during a phone interview, MycoWorks CEO Matt Scullin said that cars’ seats, dashboards and steering wheels demand particular properties that their Fine Mycelium (FM) is uniquely placed to provide. His rationale?
Plastic coatings: a ‘red herring’?
“FM gets its primary properties of tensile strength and [leather-like] handfeel” from the natural growth and texture of the material, he says. “Early test results show that Fine Mycelium has a lighter weight [to strength ratio] and allows reduced material waste due to customisable growth in thickness, size and shape” of the material, says Scullin. (Take a look at the downloadable Vartest lab test results2 for specifics). When pressed about using synthetic polymers to enhance durability, he explained that polyurethane (PU) might be used, depending on automotive needs. To date, MycoWorks typically use an aniline finishing which maintains the material’s biodegradability. (Aniline is also used in animal leather tanning processes).
He went further to label the sub-micron thicknesses of PU coatings a ‘red herring’ regarding sustainability as related to the total elimination of plastics. Why? He believes these coatings constitute such a tiny fraction of the total material weight that they should be considered negligible. His point is clear and, in this context, seems reasonable, given the impact reduction gains reported for the material. Furthermore, almost all ‘leathers’ – whether bovine, synthetic, fungi or plant-based, are currently treated with such coatings. According to Scullin, this norm represents an area for potential innovation, but to a disproportionately small degree when compared to the impact reduction gain in the materials themselves.
Mycelium’s automotive advantage
This GM partnership is MycoWorks’ first outside of the fashion industry (following their collaboration with Hermés3) and offers unique potential, says the CEO. The automotive industry is the second biggest market for leather (after footwear4), and Fine Mycelium can help the industry hit environmental targets, he believes. In addition, new regulations will demand that automotive companies reduce their environmental impacts beyond the transition from fossil powered to electric. These include the EPA’s revised Greenhouse Gas Standards5 for 20236 and EU legislation currently7 revising CO2 emissions standards for new vehicles.
“Customisability is a real advantage of Fine Mycelium – the automotive industry can take advantage of that in a way [that it] needs,” says Scullin. “This extends to adjusting the hydrophobicity and creating hybrid materials”. For example, MycoWorks recently grew their FM substrate throughout a range of mesh fabrics, including kevlar and cotton. But FM’s potential extends beyond the composition into the actual shape of the pieces of material. Theoretically, the company can customise tray shapes and sizes to grow Mycelium in the exact dimensions required to construct a seat or dashboard covering, for example, compounding this impact reduction by reducing or eliminating offcuts. This potential is what excites the CEO.
The R&D in partnership with GM Ventures is yet to commence but will coincide with the building of MycoWorks’ South Carolina facility, set to produce “millions of sq. ft per year” once up and running. Following the announcement earlier this month of Allbirds and NFW’s Mirum Plant Pacer, and our extensive assessment of animal versus alternative ‘leather’ across five pieces of intel this month, there is much to consider when assessing which material is ‘best’ in a given scenario.
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