Every now and again, a flashy news headline catches your eye, touting some brand new, world-changing, revolutionary material of the future that could solve all our sustainability problems in one fell swoop.
Then you barely ever hear about it again, because the cost to produce it at any usable scale is prohibitive. And it’s back to a fossil-based, animal-tested reality for everyone.
Gelatex Technologies is an Estonian CleanTech company with the potential to break beyond the headlines with their nanofiber innovation and make tomorrow’s materials available today. We sat down with co-founder and CEO Märt-Erik Martens to talk about lab-grown meat, what makes Gelatex special, and what needs to happen for sustainable materials to be able to replace oil-based ones.
How to stop using animals as consumables
Founded in 2016 with an initial textile focus, Gelatex has been focusing on the biomedical applications of their nanofibers for the past three years. Under this rather large umbrella, there’s room for applications like wound care, skin tissue regeneration, 3D cell culture and tissue engineering, and—perhaps most controversially of all — cultured meat.
But while this specific topic may be controversial in public discussion, the people who work with the underlying science are unapologetically enthusiastic about what that technology can do for the environment in the long term.
“We can do amazing things with cultured meat,” Martens says. “It still amazes me that technology and science have led us to the point where we know how muscle tissue grows, and we can create it artificially, without the whole animal attached. Ultimately, we can do it better and more efficiently, and remove animals from the equation in order to sustain humans on this planet. That’s pretty amazing to me.”
In all their biomedical applications, Gelatex’s materials essentially help cells to grow, proliferate, expand, and form tissue. This opens up a number of exciting possibilities straight from a sci-fi plot, including potentially eliminating the need for animal testing in the drug and cosmetics industries. “It’s just the humane way to do it, but it also helps reduce the associated costs,” Martens says. “If there were a way to not use animals for testing, everybody would choose that. We want to make that option available. The biggest impact, when we talk about the biotech applications of our materials, is not using animals as consumables.”
How to replace oil-based materials
The cultured meat side specifically is where Gelatex has solidified their position as a leading scaffold provider in the industry, already piloting with more than 60 cultured meat companies today. The company’s Muskel™ product line offers a highly porous scaffold for the meat, which claims to have exceptional biocompatibility and non-toxicity—the latter in particular being a word we’d all love to associate with the food we eat.
But the potential of Gelatex’s nanofibers extends much further than animal-free meat production, into the utopian realm of replacing oil-based materials. “The whole world is thinking about how to transition to being oil-free,” Martens says. “What happens when the world runs out of oil in 70 to 100 years? We need to start making these changes today, and this is where nanofibers come in.”
Nanofibers can be used in energy storage, for example, or to solve another global pain point: absorption materials. Diapers, 18 billion of which end up in landfills every year, are currently made out of fully non-degradable materials. Nanofibers, it just so happens, can absorb a lot of liquid—up to 30 times their own weight. “It’s not as good as synthetics,” says Martens. “But because they’re made out of compostable materials, this is a huge win. Price-wise, Gelatex is the only one who can make these materials cost-competitive with conventional materials used today.”
And therein lies the crux of the issue. Nanofibers are arguably the future of materials, but they have thus far been inaccessible—prohibitively expensive and extremely hard to produce. “We are the ones who are changing that part,” Martens says. “Everyone thinks that going green has to be expensive. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way,” Martens says. “Out of all the nanofiber companies, our solution stands out because we have the unit economics that support this transition.”
The next stage
Even though the journey starts from biotech, the company’s long-term vision is much grander and broader. “The main impact will come when Gelatex is 10 times bigger and our production capabilities 10 times bigger, and we can enter high-volume markets,” Martens says.
Currently, Gelatex is preparing for the next phase: certified demo production. With pilot production already in place today, the company is producing materials in a fully automated manner. Scaling up from here means setting up the next iteration of the production line, complying with all the necessary regulations, and getting ready to launch a licensing business model.
“We have our patented technology, and we have the equipment,” Martens explains. “The licensee will get access to the patent and recipes. We will sell them machines, and they will pay royalties based on production volumes.”
By licensing out their proprietary technology, Martens hopes that Gelatex will scale up the use of nanofibers in applications where it hasn’t been possible before. “By reducing the cost and increasing scalability, we can ultimately replace oil-based materials and products with nanofibers, and accelerate the transition to an oilless world.”
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