New developments of the start-up that created a unique type of faux leather

  • 04. August 2020
  • Articel,
  • Cooperation projects,
  • News,
  • Success story
New developments of the start-up that created a unique type of faux leather
  • 04. August 2020
  • Articel,
  • Cooperation projects,
  • News,
  • Success story
Foto: Gelatex

In 2016, we could all read the news about an Estonian start-up called Gleather (currently Gelatex Technologies) winning first prize in the finals of ClimateLaunchpad, the biggest global cleantech business idea competition in Europe. The victorious start-up planned to start creating leather-like material from gelatine produced using the low-value by-products of the meat industry.

Since then, the company has been in high gear and has become continuously closer to achieving their goals. On top of that, they have also started with developments.

From an idea to victory

The idea of using gelatin to make leather-like textile was based on an earlier research carried out in the University of Tartu. Namely, Mari-Ann Meigo Fonseca, manager of the company, was studying for a master’s degree in Entrepreneurship and Technology Management at the University of Tartu. While choosing the topic for her master’s thesis, she came up with the idea of making faux leather out of gelatin. “As I was a member of the University of Tartu Ecoinnovation Club and already had experience with working as a textile technologist and was also very interested in different eco-materials, textiles above all, I wanted to link my master’s thesis with that subject field. The thought of writing my thesis on the commercialisation of an innovative product was very compelling,” Meigo Fonseca explains. Although, first she had to find out whether there is anyone in Estonia that works on developing environmentally friendly materials. She did not have to look far as she soon discovered that the development of textile out of gelatin is one of the research topics at the University of Tartu.

The initial development of the research institution had a more medicinal orientation but it did not stop her from thinking big.

“Of course there were some doubts about why we should produce leather-like textile from gelatin at all. While taking a closer look at the matter with our team, we found out that almost 90 per cent of leather is produced by using toxic chemicals. Insufficient processing results in health problems for humans, environmental pollution and allergies. On the other hand, a vast quantity of by-products of the meat industry is destroyed by burning.”

The topic was further researched within the cleantech business idea development program and the Climate Launchpad competition, which the Estonian start-up won and the journey to finding methods to produce the environmentally friendly material could begin.

The basic material for the leather was gelatin that is a natural protein produced from the by-products of the meat, skin and fish industry. Gelatin is used to create a non-woven nano-fibre fabric by using the production method created by the company, which is then processed to make the material more similar to leather and also more durable. For greater tensile strength, the material is laminated on cotton fabric.

Meigo Fonseca thinks that it is specifically the environmentally friendly production process that gives the eco-textiles an advantage over other leather-like products. “The material comes on rolls that allows it to be deposited in layers for cutting, thus significantly reducing the important production time. Besides, the material consumption is lower and less waste is produced. Properties of the textile, such as thickness, texture, water-resistance or biodegradability, can be changed during the production process according to what the customer needs. The material properties and uniform quality are also easy to manage and the value of the product is half the cost of leather,” she explains.

Corona brought about a change of course

The unique product has caught the attention of many luxury fashion brands and car manufacturers that has led to numerous pilot experiments.

“More than 150 brands and designers all across the world, including Estonia, have expressed their interest in Gelatex, the leather-like material, and this number is continuously increasing. We have reached the point in our activity where we can already produce functional items. There are different prototypes of the developed material that show our current possibilities but, in order to assure product quality over a longer period of time, we must carry out further research,” Meigo Fonseca thinks.

Specifically, a better balance between the flexibility and durability of the material must be found.

Presumably, at least a year is required for material development and creating a production capacity and after that the time cost of producing the end products must also be considered. The entry of the products on the market also depends on the preferences of designer brands and their requirements for materials.

As often happens in life, the development process of one product could lead to even greater opportunities.  This is what happened to Gleather, as the emergency situation brought about a change of course.

As we know, the nanofibre market is expanding specifically in the field of bio-based fibres and this starting from filters, medicinally used materials, smart fibres to growing cells both for medical purposes and meat production.

“During the COVID-19 outbreak, we used our current nanofibre production line to experiment with making a filter material suitable for the production of protective face masks. We understood that the production technology we had created had a much greater potential. Usually, the possibilities for producing nanofibres are limited, expensive and slow but our technology is at that significantly faster, safer and cheaper,” Meigo Fonseca notes.

So they decided to temporarily suspend the development of the leather-like textile and face new challenges instead.

“We want to improve the production technology and to create a portable tabletop version of our nanofibre production device, which could also be great for universities for material development projects. We plan to make this device available for sale by the spring of the following year. Then we would move on to creating an industrial installation,” explains the manager of the company to introduce the new challenges. She also adds that there are other ideas on material development that they have launched in co-operation with other organisations. “Of course we want to continue the development of the leather-like textile and are also looking for financing to carry out these activities. Our company has a total of six members, including people with a background in materials science, engineering, production organisation and marketing. We have mainly co-operated with the University of Tartu and, from the start and during multiple cooperation projects, our most important mentors in engineering have been Martin Järvekülg and Uno Mäeorg. As we are a knowledge-based start-up, it is clear that in addition to money and persistence we also need time and continuous experimentation. I believe that together we will go far with our developments.”


The company Gelatex Technologies was founded by Mari-Ann Meigo Fonseca and Märt-Erik Martens.

Essential cooperation partners are the Universito of Tartu, Climate-KIC, Cleantech ForEst, Techstars, Prototron, Archimedes, Enterprise Estonia, Ministry of the Environment, Worth partnership project, EIC accelerator of the European Commission (former Horizon2020 SME Instrument), Anna Lehmusniemi of Finnish brand NO/AN and the team of the Stella Soomlais Studio.

 

Author: Kaja Mõts

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