While visiting Hungary in 2014 I learned that both Organovo and Modern Meadow – the two companies that have single-handedly introduced the very concept of commercial bioprinting and cellular agriculture-based biofabrication applications – were founded by men of Hungarian origins. I did not realize that they were the same two people – father and son – for both companies. Andras Forgacs co-founded Organovo with his father, Professor Gabor Forgacs of the University of Missouri. He then left the company in 2013 head Modern Meadow (which he also co-founded with his father). Today he is pushing the introduction of the ZOA “biofabricated” leather material and discussing its potential at high profile events such as the recent World Economic Forum in Davos.
As reported by BBC journalist Katie Hope, who met with him in Davos, Mr. Forgacs expects to launch the first ZOA product sometime this year. The product is created from yeast cells that are fermented in a similar way to beer to create collagen, the protein that gives skin its strength and elasticity. From here it is assembled into a sheet that can be adapted in various ways depending on its purpose. Mr. Forgacs says his firm’s target won’t only be the fashion industry and eventually, he expects the fabric to be used for a variety of purposes, including clothing, shoes, handbags, car and plane interiors and furniture.
Judging from Forgacs’ previous experiences, this is exactly what is going to happen. Unlike previous experiences, hopefully, this time it will be his company to fully reap the benefits of his foresightedness.
The Organovo heritage
Organovo was the first company to put bioprinting on the map as a possible commercial application. The company was founded by Dr. Forgacs after he quit his career as a theoretical physicist. He set about developing a process to print multi-cellular tissues – dubbed bioprinting – in 2005, and two years later founded Organovo with colleagues Keith Murphy and Dr. Eric Michael David, based on a patent for the NovoGen bioprinting platform.
Over the years Organovo received several million in funding to produce human tissue for commercial applications. The company was the very first to use bioinks – a hydrogel containing human stem cells- and dispense the layer by layer to build up 3D tissues. Organovo produced a range of products, including a vascular graft, liver tissue fragments kidney tissue and cardiac patches. Although the long term stated goal was building functional and implantable human organs, it soon became clear that the first commercial applications would be in the development of tissue for drug development testing in the pharmaceutical industry.
The company was listed on the NASDAQ index and its stock reached an all-time high of $13* during the 3D printing stock bubble of 2013, to subsequently drop down to just under $1. The company has also struggled with introducing its products to the market, with too few large pharmaceutical companies finding value in the 3D tissue. In many ways, Organovo proved to be too ahead of its time, with several other companies introducing similar systems in the following years which seem to be able to produce the same type of bioprinted products at much lower costs.
Enter Modern Meadow
In 2013, Organovo filed an 8K announcing that Andras Forgacs, resigned from Organovo as a member of the Board of Directors. Since then he focused entirely and is still currently the CEO of modern meadow (his father Gabor is the Chief Scientific Officer). The company’s initial value proposition is simple; to be able to print meat and leather. In late 2011 Gabor actually cooked and ate a small piece of cultured pork onstage at a TEDMED conference.
In 2014 Modern Meadow worked with Google on producing the first full hamburger made in a lab from cultured meat cells. The hamburger had an estimated cost of $300,000. Thus meat was not the initial focus of the company. Much like in Organovo’s case, after Modern Meadow created the first concepts of lab-cultured meat, several smaller startups followed, even founding an entire movement which is best represented by the New Harvest company and events on cellular agriculture. Companies like Memphis Meat brought the cost of lab-grown meat from $300,000 to just a few hundred and even less in a matter of a few years. Once again Foracs’ company started something that others may be reaping the benefits of.
Instead, Modern Meadow intends to print leather. The firm is still only producing the fabric in small quantities but Forgacs believes his firm can disrupt the $200bn (£153bn) leather industry. Zoa™ is Modern Meadow’s first biofabricated materials brand. It can be any density, hold to any mold, create any shape and take on any texture. IT can be combined with any other material, liquid or solid. In line with the company’s overall vision, it is grown with the intention of making things of real value, that exist not just to serve humans, but to co-exist with everything.
As with Forgacs’ previous two ventures in bioprinting and cellular agriculture, NOA is getting plenty of media attention. In many ways, it combines aspects of bioprinting and cellular agriculture in ways that may finally result in a truly disruptive commercial product. Whether Modern Meadows succeeds or not in bringing it to market, we can safely bet that someone eventually will.
- This article was modified on January 29th to reflect the fact that Organovo’s stock peaked at $13 and not at $7 as previously written.