Biotechnology scientist and avid conservationist Dr. Keith Hudson has founded an environmental startup with a goal of being a major player and disruptor of the conventional textiles industry.
His Auckland-based startup, Sapro-Tech, grows and harvests fungi and uses it to make leather.
Sapro-Tech weaves the fungi’s food harvesting fibres – cellular tissue called mycelium – to produce a sustainable textile that is comparable to traditional leather. The layers of mycelium are grown together in sheets. The mycelium produces a textile to make leather – in a much lower carbon footprint than tanning cow hides.
“Anything you can make with leather, we can likely make with mycelium,” Hudson says. “We have to reduce the amount of fossil fuel-based energy that we are using – we think we can run our whole production plant on solar energy – we would not require any other energy.”
Hudson has both developed and launched exciting technology, for micro-farmed fungi, that he says is good for the planet as it is sustainable due to using low amounts of energy, producing low amounts of greenhouse gases without creating toxic components.
“It’s got lots of potential to make a whole variety of leather like materials that are cost effective, and it really is at the vanguard of using microorganisms. That is the future if we are to have a sustainable planet,” Hudson says. “The vast majority of brands that sell leather say they are interested in sustainability, but very few have any sustainable products, and that’s partly because there are very few sustainable textiles for leather.”
Hudson founded Sapro-Tech in 2021 through Sprout Agritech’s 12-week accelerator programme, designed to support startups who solve tough problems in agriculture. Hudson was motivated to form the startup due to his environmental concerns, and to provide a carbon-friendly alternative to the dairy industry where cow hides are used to make leather.
“I’m really concerned around climate change and biodiversity loss. We are really heading for a catastrophic situation unless we dramatically change what we do, and we are not changing anywhere fast enough, in my view,” he says.
Sapro-Tech is the sixth investment of more than thirty NZ$1 million agritech and foodtech investments Sprout will make over the next five years, predominately through Callaghan Innovation’s Tech Incubator programme designed to support the commercialisation of early-stage deep tech ventures.
“We were lucky that Callaghan runs this tech incubator programme, and Sprout Agritech funded us $1m as a starting point,” Hudson says.
Three quarters of Sprout’s funding came from Callaghan through the tech incubator scheme, but Callaghan also provides other opportunities; for example, a research and development student was hired on a stipend to help grow the startup.
Hudson took several months to develop prototypes showing conversion of mycelium to a leather equivalent. He also secured a $520,000 grant from the Ministry of Primary Industries, provided he first raised 60 percent more himself. He says it wasn’t easy.
“I found it relatively difficult to get funding in New Zealand when the economy was going downwards – New Zealand is not very good at investing in ventures that it is does not have much familiarity in.”
While that funding allows Sapro-Tech to take its world-first production process for creating a leather equivalent from fungi to the global textile market, Hudson says he is hoping to have a further raise next year “when we have improved prototypes, when we’ve captured some intellectual property, and when we’ve engaged with potential serious customers.”
While Hudson is a scientist, heading a successful startup like Sapro-Tech harnesses entrepreneurial skills in both business and science.
“You have to have a range of skills if you are in a science focused area,” he says. “You have to understand intellectual property, particularly freedom to operate and the ability to obtain patents. I’m now really skilled at looking at patents and taking opportunities.”
Not all aspects of creating a startup go to plan. But Hudson has faith in his scientific methodology and his ability to see the project through. He not only wants to create a startup – he wants to create a whole industry.
“As long as you believe in a goal, you don’t require any miracle steps, you are using a scientific method, and you are progressing, that is all that’s really important. But you really must be utterly determined and have faith in yourself.”
It’s clear climate change and sustainability are core drivers behind Sapro-Tech. Would Hudson have funded Sapro-Tech had he not been passionate about addressing environmental issues?
“Possibly not – it’s a really big component of what I do,” he says. “It’s an example of what you can do to create sustainable materials and it’s an opportunity to talk about how important responding more rapidly to climate change is.”
Story by Dave Crampton in partnership with Sprout.