The team believes that the chitosan formulation could be fed directly into currently available machinery for the production of polyurethane or PVA (the plastic film used in washing capsules), enabling rapid scale-up of shrimp leather goods production. Now TômTex is moving operations from a small lab in Newlab to a larger pilot production space a short walk away in the Navy Yard, where the company will hopefully be able to prove its thesis. The co-founders walked with me to see it, but the facility was just a suggestion of what it could be. They were still waiting for the electricity to be installed, and all lab equipment was plugged into an overloaded extension cord.
The small setup in the center of the room looked like a combination of a bakery and a laboratory, with advanced technical equipment, a professional dehydrator and shelves full of beakers and baking trays. The air always smelled so slightly sweet, probably because chitosan, a polysaccharide, is converted into something similar to molasses during the manufacturing process. (And no, there’s no shellfish smell.)
On the floor was a construction bucket of jagged old material samples in a rainbow of colors and textures. McBee said they melted down old monsters and made new monsters out of them. In some cases, the chitosan leather has been melted down and reconstituted twice, which is twice as much as most other vegan leathers. “I don’t want to promise that the very last version of this will be this, because it changes depending on the particular chemistry,” he said. “But right now the recipe is something where you could take one last sheet and basically melt it back.”
That is music to the ears of the fashion industry, which has touted the distant utopia of a circular economy, where used clothing and accessories are endlessly looped through the supply chain to create new products. It wasn’t until a few months ago, when the TômTex team figured out how to make the material water resistant, that they had the confidence to start sharing the leather substitute with bigger brands and the press. TômTex is now in talks with a major leather goods brand, a sportswear brand and a sneaker brand to use its material in mass-produced products. Behind the table with the 3D printer, a whiteboard showed some of the world’s largest fashion companies with production quantities next to them.
Getting a commitment from those brands to buy a certain amount of product will be critical, says Nunes. “The kind of thing investors like to hear is yes, we are getting commitments and all these companies and brands are very interested. At that point, the investors will invest the money and then give them the facilities they need to produce the capacity they need to serve these brands.”
TômTex hopes to produce its leather replacement on a scale of 100,000 meters per year by the end of 2023, which is a lightning fast timeline compared to many of the other fashion material innovations that have been in development for a decade or more. “We hope that within this year there will be something that people can actually get their hands on,” McBee said.
That may be optimistic and will depend on how successful TômTex is in this fundraising round and the accompanying phase of technology refinement. MII’s Gladman says the institute expects a slowdown and consolidation this year in the leather alternatives market, which has dozens of new entrants lugging along for nearly a decade with few consumer products to show for it.
“We think some startups fail,” says Gladman. “And it’s kind of sad, but at the same time it’s a sign of progress in the industry.”
If it continues at this rate, TômTex could eventually come from behind to win.