A Commercial Production Line for a Plant-Based Alternative to Leather

Derived from the roots of mushrooms, mycelium is one of the innovative materials offering a plant-based alternative to leather. To produce mycelium on a commercial scale, new equipment is needed that ensures the consistency and quality of the product at larger volumes. In a collaborative project funded by Future Fashion Factory, Mykko is developing an effective production line for a mycelium alternative to leather and identifying new routes to market.

Founder Aurélie Fontan is a biodesigner, working with organic materials and dyes across each of her fashion collections. When she met her partner Ashley Granter, a product designer who was already working with mycelium, the pair began to develop prototype products that demonstrated the potential of the material for fashion and other applications. Soon they had relocated to the East Midlands and won awards including the Lord Mayor’s Award and the Innovate UK Sustainable Innovation Fund.

“Growing mycelium uses less water than many other materials on the market, and because it is grown on an organic substrate it’s completely renewable,” Aurélie explains. “About 70% of our raw material is hemp which we source nearby in Yorkshire, keeping carbon emissions from our supply chain low. The potential for mycelium as a sustainable, low-waste, plant-based alternative to leather is great if it works at scale.”

Ashley Granter and Aurélie Fontan hold a white dappled sample of their mycelium 'leather alternative'
Ashley and Aurélie producing mycelium samples. Image: Mykko

Mykko led an ambitious research and development (R&D) project in collaboration with Future Fashion Factory researchers to develop a full production line for mycelium, including a prototype machine that can ensure consistency across higher volumes of material, testing and characterising the performance of the products, and formulating a route to market. As they moved closer to their minimum viable product (MVP), Aurélie and Ashley also benefited from the support and experience they needed to prepare for their next phase of growth.

Pale brown sample of mycelium-based alternative to leather held in the hands of an unseen person
Analysing samples of Mykko’s mycelium is key to optimising its performance. Image: Mykko

Underpinning the process was the need to understand the performance of Mykko’s mycelium products, highlighting how they could be refined and ensuring that the production line can meet the right product specifications.

Dr Sohel Rana and Dr. Shama Parveen at the University of Huddersfield tested material samples for properties such as tensile strength and flex resistance, giving the company a solid baseline and highlighting how the mycelium could be refined.

At the same time, Aurélie and Ashley continued to develop the prototype machine and researchers at the Royal College of Art, led by Dr Dawn Ellams, researched the wider landscape in which Mykko’s new mycelium production line would sit.

In workshops with potential end users, the researchers identified their requirements and highlighted questions that needed to be answered to form a viable route to market.

“Customers needed a very clear understanding of the offering and how it would fit within their wider systems and processes,” Dawn explains. “They asked questions about the durability and performance of the material, which the technical testing will help Mykko answer – and it even got us thinking about whether a repair and re-manufacturing service model would be a viable revenue stream.”

With a prototype machine nearly finished and testing about to begin on the wet systems at the heart of the manufacturing line, Aurélie says the project has given her a much stronger sense of how the business could grow in the future through developing its product and service offerings.

It has also armed her with the experience and confidence to take mycelium alternatives to leather to the next level, as they grow their new relationships with materials science and footwear companies interested in the next phase of user testing.

“Future Fashion Factory enabled the kind of core R&D that startups don’t normally have when they’re creating an MVP,” Aurélie says. “And because Sohel and Dawn were so supportive we learned a lot about the technical side of materials development and the fashion manufacturing system. It gives us a knowledge base and experience that has prepared us to work with bigger industry partners and investors.”