CNN Premiere: GM Invests in Mushroom Leather Startup

CNN Business

The venture capital arm of General Motors has invested in a Californian startup that makes leatherette from mushrooms.

The material is made by MycoWorks using the root-like structures of mushrooms, called mycelium. This could provide an alternative to traditional leather made from animal hides, usually cattle, and artificial leather made from plastic materials. The automotive industry is the largest non-footwear user of leather, according to 2015 data from the International Council of Tanners.

MycoWorks develops these thread-like mycelia into flexible, leather-like sheets. The resulting material looks like leather, has a similar durability and can be colored using processes that do not involve harmful substances, just like leather of animal origin.

The mycelia are grown in trays of organic matter, usually something like wood pulp, which the mycelia break down and consume as they grow. Using various processes, company representatives declined to discuss, the mycelia are made to intertwine as they grow, forming the leather-like material. The sheets can be made in different thicknesses and can be much thinner than leather, said co-founder Sophia Wang.

Both MycoWorks and GM Ventures declined to say how much GM Venture is investing.

“The collaboration will focus on [research and development] activity, exploring the possibility of potentially using this alternative to leather in future automotive design,” GM Ventures said in an emailed statement.

The company has used previous investment rounds from venture capitalists to boost its manufacturing capabilities, Wang said.

“We have a pilot plant here in Emeryville, [California], where we produce tens of thousands of sheets a year and are launching a full-scale, commercial-size plant in South Carolina next year,” Wang said. “We have already started construction and this factory will be millions of square feet per year.”

It takes several weeks, rather than years, to grow a leaf of Reishi material similar in size to about half a cowhide, Wang said. The uniformity of Reishi eliminates the need to discard materials due to imperfections, as is the case with leather made from animal hides, she said.

Fine Mycelium is the MycoWorks trademark term for the base material from which leatherette is made. It is the final leather-like material itself that is called Reishi. GM’s partnership will help MycoWorks develop Reishi specifically for automotive purposes, including uses on seats, dashboards and steering wheels. Automotive interiors can be a particular challenge for various materials due to extremely high temperatures inside parked cars and exposure to various substances, including food spills and skin lotions.

“GM marks MycoWorks’ first partnership outside of the fashion industry, demonstrating the endless possibilities and applications of Fine Mycelium,” MycoWorks chief executive Matt Scullin said in a statement.

MycoWorks has previously worked with French fashion house Hermés to create a different leather substitute called Sylvania. The company also worked with a hat designer Nicolas Fouquet to develop a line of Reishi hats.

MycoWorks was founded in 2013 by San Francisco artist Phil Wood and collaborator Wang. Wood had worked with mycelia to create various kinds of sculptural structures, and his works have been exhibited in various institutions and exhibitions, including the modern Art Museum At New York. Large companies began to approach Wood about the possibilities of mycelium in a variety of industrial applications, Wang said, creating a company to commercialize. the ideas seemed like a logical step. Some of those early requests came from automakers, she said.

Earlier this year, Mercedes-Benz said it used mycelium-based materials in its EQXX electric concept car. MycoWorks was not involved in this project, which used similar material from a competitor.

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