Cultivated, Cell-Cultured & Biotechnology

Qorium: “Our Product Creates Consistent, Beautiful, and Easily Workable Leather”

Founded in 2014, Dutch biotech startup Qorium is developing cultivated leather to provide an ethical and sustainable alternative to animal leather with no compromises on performance.

The company’s technology enables the development of leather alternatives with consistent quality and adjustable properties. The result is a premium material with dramatically reduced carbon emissions and waste compared to conventional leather.

In 2021, Qorium raised €2.6 million to scale up its technology. The company then announced earlier this year that it had secured further funding as part of its journey towards commercial scale, and revealed it had appointed former Nike senior executive Michael Newton as CEO. We spoke to Newton to find out more about Qorium’s technology and its benefits.

What challenges does Qorium face in terms of regulations and certifications for cell-cultured leather?
Unlike the cultured meat industry, where there are obvious hurdles for a product that is intended for human consumption, we’re not anticipating regulatory hurdles for the product itself. One challenge that may come our way may be trade regulation, as we’re seeing in Italy where some lobbyists are pushing for constraints on ‘non-traditional’ products. These are part and parcel of the complexities inherent in developing a completely new category of product, and underscore how important it is for us to engage positively with the industry and with legislators as we evolve.

© Qorium

Scaling is the biggest challenge among cultivated meat companies. How is Qorium addressing this issue? There are three primary channels through which we enable our scaling. Firstly, and most traditionally, it is through investment. We’ve just announced a significant new round, and we’re excited to see how this injection of new resources is already helping us put new momentum behind the process. Secondly, we design our processes to take advantage of installed manufacturing capacity. Thirdly, we’re working to partner widely with companies that bring the expertise and the balance sheets needed for this challenge.

How does Qorium obtain the cell lines for its leather? What does that harvesting process look like?
Much like taking a biopsy, a tiny amount of tissue is extracted using a needle-like device. It’s completely harmless to the animal.

Can you customize the product’s strength, flexibility, or any other features by modifying the cell content?
The huge advantage of cultured leather is that it can be manufactured to a specific, consistent thickness and size. We’re working on a range of approaches so we can ultimately provide our customers with as much flexibility as possible.

In regards to the company’s recent funding round, can you speak to what specific areas of research, development, or expansion the funds will support?
We can’t reveal specifically where we’ll be deploying those resources, but we will be funding additional research and development, product development, and our manufacturing and scaling plans.

© Qorium

What is the main benefit of cultured over farmed leather?
There are many benefits, but we focus on a few primary ones. First and foremost, it’s environmental. In terms of water use, energy use, and waste, our product is significantly better than the farmed alternative. Sustainability is at the heart of everything we do as a company. This isn’t just about reducing carbon or methane emissions, but also about removing animal cruelty, significantly reducing waste generation, land use, water use, and so on. Additionally, our product creates consistent, beautiful, and easily workable leather. Compared to traditional leather, cultured leather offers a great deal of final product benefits as well.

Environmentally preferred alternatives are now commonplace in many industries. Tons of companies are offering alternative leather-like materials. What do you think about these materials, and how do they compare to Qorium’s cell-cultured product?
All these materials have a role to play in a vibrant, innovative marketplace. There are exciting developments taking place with cork-based and mycelium-based materials, as well as those based on petrochemicals. All offer various benefits, but none offer the qualities of true leather – durability, breathability, and appearance.

What is consumer comfort like for cell-cultured alternatives in fashion?
A consumer wouldn’t notice any difference in terms of quality or feel between cultured or natural leather.

If most leather comes from meat cows, why is cultured leather important?
The hides produced by the meat industry require a high degree of energy and waste-intensive processing to get them to the manufacturing stage our product provides at the point of production. Equally, once a natural hide is tanned a large percentage of every hide is unusable due to blemishes/flaws and irregularities. 100% of our product is premium quality, so there is no waste. Additionally, we believe in the long-term vision that natural cowhides will be and should be constrained over time. We hope to hasten that state as it will be good for the planet and those living on it. Not to mention, many consumers want nothing to do with natural cowhides, even if they are available. But they do want the luxury and product quality that only leather can offer.

© Qorium

Are you seeing the demand being driven from consumers, brands, or elsewhere?
In our view, demand will come from both sides. Consumers are key drivers of demand from a welfare/environmental perspective; while these factors matter for brands too, what really attracts them is the quality, consistency, and adaptability of the product. We are seeing this in the marketplace already.

What do you envisage the next five years to look like in terms of supply and demand?

When it comes to the science, what was the biggest breakthrough?
Oh boy, there are many! We’re really innovating. This is truly cutting-edge science. At its heart, it comes down to combining the specifically developed cultured cells with the necessary tissue engineering process to create a product that is as thick and durable as a natural hide. Once we achieved this, it became more of an engineering than a scientific challenge, and hence one that is more predictable and controllable.

There are a few competitors in this space. Why is that the case, especially when there are so many cultured meat companies? What makes Qorium different?
Doing hard things is hard! The cultured meat industry got a lot of traction early on that just grew and grew and grew with many companies and investors flocking to the space. Leather has been a bit under the radar despite being what we believe is a more attractive and interesting industry. Equally, we’ve benefited from the developments in the cultured meat space, which has allowed us to anticipate a lot of the challenges involved early in the process. Our founding team combines leather industry and product expertise as well as science.

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