Cultivating Creativity in New York: Phil Ross’s $125 Million MycoWorks Venture

10:43 am  |  16.12.2023

Artist Phil Ross’s MycoWorks made history by unveiling the first-ever commercial mycelium-based synthetic leather production facility on September 20, 2023.

Phil Ross, a painter and sculptor, graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute. Throughout his unconventional career path, he has consistently intertwined his art with a peculiar fascination for mushrooms. From retreats to hospice, Ross’s diverse experiences led him to discover the healing properties of mushrooms, laying the foundation for his innovative business.

MycoWorks Genesis: From Artistic Expression to Business Pioneering

Inspired by Paul Stamets’s book, Ross established a home laboratory to experiment with mycelium behavior. Recognizing mycelium’s potential as a building material, he showcased his creations, attracting attention from both the media and the construction industry. This pivotal moment marked the birth of MycoWorks, with Ross and artist/writer Sophia Wang as co-founders.

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Transitioning away from construction, MycoWorks ventured into diverse markets, including a groundbreaking exploration into the footwear industry. Recognizing the potential for mycelium-based materials in creating artificial leather, MycoWorks set its sights on revolutionizing the leather industry.

Funding the Future: MycoWorks’ IndieBio Acceleration

In their search for funding, MycoWorks approached the biotech accelerator IndieBio. Despite a hiccup during the presentation, Phil and Sophia secured funding for their project, which they named Reishi, and focused on using mycelium as a material for artificial skin. The biomaterial’s potential was showcased, attracting attention from global fashion brands.

Entrepreneur Matt Scullin, now MycoWorks’ CEO, played a pivotal role in expanding the team and securing substantial funding. Outgrowing their small San Francisco workshop, MycoWorks established a production facility and headquarters in Emeryville, California, poised for a groundbreaking future.

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In February 2020, Reishi made its debut at New York Fashion Week, securing an impressive $62 million in funding, with notable investors such as Natalie Portman and John Legend. MycoWorks’ collaboration with luxury brand Hermès in 2021, producing the Sylvania material for the Victoria travel bag, marked a significant breakthrough.

High-Profile Endorsements and Automotive Investment

Renowned hat designer Nick Fouquet embraced Reishi, crafting his first hat from the innovative material within 24 hours. Even his seamstresses found it indistinguishable from genuine leather. General Motors joined MycoWorks as an investor, adding automotive industry recognition to the company’s growing popularity.

MycoWorks received an additional $125 million to construct a large-scale production plant.

The grand opening took place on September 20, featuring a 136,000-square-foot facility with a workforce of approximately 350 people, driven by escalating demand. The new plant, named Reishi, is set to produce over 1 million square feet annually, a substantial step forward, although comparatively small to the 31 billion square feet of natural leather produced during the same timeframe.

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Environmental Impact and Sustainability Goals

Recognizing the environmental impact of leather production, MycoWorks positions Reishi as a sustainable alternative. Animal by-products, considered waste if not purchased by companies, contribute to landfill concerns. The initiative aligns with the broader goal of addressing environmental challenges outlined by Ingrid Andersen of the United Nations Environment Program.

Over 110 global brands, including Gucci and BMW, are adopting next-generation materials, as reported by the Material Innovation Initiative (MII). These materials, free from animal origins and plastic components, align with the evolving demands for sustainable and environmentally friendly practices.

The patented Fine Mycelium Technology used in creating Reishi involves combining mycelium with food, agricultural, or forestry waste. Cotton or other fibers are added to create desired textures, and the resulting sheet undergoes tanning and dyeing. Unlike traditional leather processing, Reishi avoids hair and fat removal, as well as chromium use.

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Customization and Sustainability in Faux Leather Production

The thickness, density, and pattern of faux leather can be customized, which gives it more flexibility compared to traditional hides. This plant-based biomaterial contributes to a reduced carbon footprint and minimized chemical waste, aligning with consumer preferences for exclusively plant-based materials.

While some mycelium companies, like Bolt Threads, use plasticizers for strength and elasticity, consumer demand for exclusively plant-based materials is on the rise. MycoWorks aims to capitalize on this trend, especially as Bolt Threads concludes its alternative leather production, strengthening MycoWorks’ market position.

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Currently priced comparably to premium leather, the creators of Reishi anticipate a reduction in cost as production scales up. This shift could democratize the use of Reishi in a broader range of products beyond luxury goods, where current offerings, such as a Hermès bag, command prices upwards of $4,200, and Nick Fouquet hats range from $775 to $1,675.

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