The team believes that its chitosan formulation can be inserted directly into currently available machines for the production of polyurethane or PVA (that plastic film used in laundry pods), so the production of shrimp skin products can be rapidly scaled up. TômTex is now moving operations from a small lab in Newlab to a larger pilot facility a short walk away at the Navy Yard, where the company will hopefully be able to prove its thesis. The co-founders approached me to look at it, but the object was just a guess as to what it might be. They were still waiting for the power to come on, and all the lab equipment was hooked up to one overloaded power strip.
The small setup in the center of the room looked like a mixture of a bakery and a laboratory, with cutting-edge technical equipment, an industrial food dryer, and shelves littered with beakers and cookie cutters. The air smelled slightly sweet, probably because chitosan, a polysaccharide, is converted into something similar to molasses during the manufacturing process. (And no, there is no shellfish smell.)
On the floor was a construction bucket filled with serrated samples of old materials in all rainbow colors and textures. McBee said that they melted down the old samples and turned them into new samples. In some cases, chitosan leather has been melted down and reclaimed twice, twice as much as most other vegan leathers. “I don’t want to promise that the very, very final version will be like this, because it changes depending on certain chemistry,” he said. “But for now, the recipe is where you can take the last leaf and essentially melt it down.”
This is music to the ears of the fashion industry as it speaks of a far-off circular economy utopia, where used clothing and accessories endlessly cycle through the supply chain to create new products. It wasn’t until a couple of months ago, when the TômTex team figured out how to make the material waterproof, that they confidently began sharing leather replacements with bigger brands and the press. TômTex is currently in talks with a major leather goods brand, sportswear brand and sneaker brand to start using its material in mass market products. At a table with a 3D printer, some of the world’s largest fashion corporations were listed on a chalkboard, with production numbers next to them.
The key will be the commitment of these brands to buy a certain amount of the product, Nunes said. “Investors love to hear that yes, we are getting commitments and all these companies and brands are very interested. That’s when investors will put in the money and then provide them with the equipment they need to produce the capacity they need to serve those brands.”
TomTex is looking to produce leather replacements at a scale of 100,000 yards a year by the end of 2023, a lightning-fast schedule compared to many other fashion material innovations that have been in development for a decade or more. “We’re hoping there’s something coming up this year that people can really get their hands on,” McBee said.
This may be optimistic and will depend on how successful TomTex is in this fundraising round and the accompanying technology improvement phase. MII’s Gladman says the institute expects a slowdown and consolidation this year in the alternative leather market, which has dozens of entrants that have been chugging along for nearly a decade and consumer products have little to show.
“We think some startups might fail,” Gladman says. “And it’s a bit sad, but at the same time it’s a sign of progress in the industry.”
If this continues at the same pace, TomTex may fall behind and win.