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May 12, 2021
By Kerri Luttrell
Sustaining Biomaterials Growth in New York

New York is a global center of cultural and economic affairs, such as theatre, food, fashion, and international business. At Unexpected Biotech, IndieBio featured 2 founders who envision a future where biomaterials becomes yet another area for which New York is famous.

What advantages does a biomaterials startup have on the east coast? And how does one build a company that is as sustainable, successful, and long-lasting as the biomaterials they produce? Watch the recording or read our summary to find out.

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Biomaterials in New York: Location, Location, Location

“The future of bio is design and consumer products… New York is leading design around the world, so [biomaterials innovation] should be located here as a conversation,” said Suzanne Lee, founder and CEO of Biofabricate. Biofabricate is a biomaterials-based consulting group, founded in New York in 2014, that works with startups, consumer brands, and investors to strengthen the global community of biomaterials innovators.

Lee elaborated on the New York location: “It made a huge amount of sense to start Biofabricate in New York because it’s that midway point between a lot of the [biotechnological] development that’s happening on the West Coast and the design focus as we look towards Europe.” New York’s location enhances the company’s ability to bridge the gap between biomaterials innovators and the consumer brand space. 

At the forefront of these biomaterials innovators is Ecovative Design. Ecovative grows mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, into objects such as leather-like textiles, compostable packaging, and food products. The company was founded in 2007 and is based out of upstate New York. 

“The region we’re in has a lot of great talent options. There’s a lot of pharmaceutical, global foundries, university systems, and–for most roles–we’ve actually found that the local talent pool is pretty amazing and undertapped,” said Ecovative Design CEO Eben Bayer. Thus, New York provides not only the geographic location for uniting design and biotechnology, but the critical mass of diverse talent required for sustained innovation.

Biomaterials Offers Cross-Disciplinary Collaborations

Despite the wide variety of talent that New York has to offer, recruiting still remains a challenging task because of the interdisciplinarity of the biomaterials space. Bayer advised that companies “see every person as a person and know that some of the best innovations in this field will be at the intersection of disciplines.” 

Mycelium-based products already lie at the intersection between biotechnology, food science, fashion design, and materials packaging. Collaboration between previously siloed disciplines encourages new innovations, creating sustainable growth both within the company and within the biomaterials community.

Lee, who entered the biomaterials space with a formal education in design, provides a perfect example of the innovation that can come from fusing a design-based background with a biotechnology focus. Up-and-coming biomaterials innovators are embracing this strategy by promoting intellectual exchange between research and design departments.  

As the lines between design and science continue to break down, Lee asserted that “design from both sides, that creative thinking with biology, is just going to be unfolding decades of exciting products that we can only begin to imagine.” 

Partnerships Make or Break Biomaterials Startups

While both the right place and the right people can strengthen the foundation of a biomaterials startup, there is no future for a company without a customer. This is where brand partnerships come in. Some companies’ technologies, such as Ecovative’s leather products, lend themselves to mass market partnerships. Other companies’ technologies are better suited for a top down entry and partnerships with luxury brands. 

As sustainably sourced materials become more and more important to the consumer, startups must carefully assess the motivation behind partnership offers from brands. Startups should be wary of brands looking to partner with sustainable materials companies only as a marketing strategy rather than a long term investment. 

To create successful partnerships, Bayer suggested that startups “understand where you’re at [as a company], find the one [brand] where you actually get a champion fit, and then really partner strongly.” At Ecovative, Bayer found this champion fit with a packaging plant manager looking to shift to more sustainable materials. Having a person of seniority who cared about the problem Ecovative was fixing allowed the partnership to persevere during the growing pains of the scaling up product development.

Recently, brands such as Hermes, Adidas, and Stella McCartney have all adopted mycelium-based leather alternatives. “When they [Hermes] embrace a new material it’s not just for one season­– they are actually investing in it for the long term. So that is a significant statement in the luxury industry: they view a technology like mycelium as a long term alternative to their existing portfolio of materials,” said Lee. Not only does this feed back into the market and encourage other brands to adopt sustainable materials, but it provides investors’ confidence in the materials as a long term investment and burgeoning marketplace.

And what does the future look like for the biomaterials space? The seeds planted by biomaterials startups are sprouting into a new generation of consumer products. Said Bayer, “the most satisfying part of this next cycle will be seeing products showing up on shelves.”

Find more insights from IndieBio’s Unexpected Biotech event

Biomaterials Startup Showcase: Algiknit