From Blade Runner to Sustainable Development

blade runner film with cows

What do Blade runner and the “I-would- rather-go-naked-than-wear-fur” campaign have in common? On the surface nothing, except that their combined effect triggered a fashion designer´s dream of stopping cruelty to animals and hopefully saving the world at the same time.

Ingvar Helgason was two years old when the science fiction film Blade Runner was premiered.  Instead of “the Androids who dreamt of Electric Sheep” – to paraphrase the title of the book that Blade runner is based on – Helgason dreamt of “what if” one of the ideas in the movie would become reality.

Rather go naked

A native of Iceland Helgason dropped out of school to join the fashion industry in London and Paris as a teenager. At 25 he was running his own fashion brand. At the time auction houses, such as Copenhagen Furs and Saga furs, reached out to young and upcoming designers like himself. “Naomi Campbell was on billboards everywhere saying “I would rather go naked than wear a fur. They had had a public backlash longer than most animal products in the industry.”

At the time Helgason did not answer the fur industry´s desperate cry for coolness.

However: “I am a science fiction fan, and I thought:  “What if you could do this in a lab like they do in Blade runner, one of my favourite movies?”

In the movie Rick Deckard (Harrion Ford) solves crime when he finds snake-skin scales with a bar code on it and he finds where it was grown and traces to this person who grows snakes and owls.

Helgason recalls his way of thinking at the time: “Wouldn´t it be cool if you can get out of all these ethical implications if you would grow this in a lab.”

Animal cells

At the time he was busy running his fashion brand but when after a decade long run it faltered in 2015 he started looking for new adventures.

Andras Forgacs of the New Jersey start-up Modern Meadow started gaining attention for this enthusiastic Ted Talk on growing meat out of animal cells

That was when Helgason remembered his Blade runner idea. He found out that Modern Meadow still had not realized a product so “in my infinite wisdom and knowledge about bio-techncology (which was practically zero!) I thought “how hard can it be”?”

As a matter of fact, it turned out to be hard. However, blissfully ignorant of that, Helgason got on a plane to San Francisco.  Investors liked his knowledge about the fashion industry but pointed out the obvious: “How the hell are you going to do it? You have never set foot in a lab.”

Back to the drawing board and a search for a partner with a scientific background.

“I can take care of the science”

Scientist are few and far between in science fiction but he found the right person not in the movies but in an internet search engine called Google that the creators of Blade runner hadn´t even dreamt of when the movie was premiered and Helgason was learning to ride a tricycle.

The google search generated a paper on growing skin in a lab albeit for cosmetic drug testing. Dr. Dusko Ilic, a very skeptical professor at King´s College at first deleted Helgason´s emails but finally accepted to talk to him and eventually succumbed to his persistency: “If you can get money I can take care of the science.”

Just like the androids in Philip K. Dick´s science fiction novel dreamt of electric sheep but ended up in a movie, Helgason adapted to reality and instead of growing fur he focused on leather. “It is a simpler construct, a simpler process.”

The goal of the new company VitroLabs Inc. became a million hand-bags instead of the original idea of a million furs. This also made sense because while the demand of leather has increased, the supply has decreased.

While there are clearly challenges there are also opportunities.

Blade runner SDGs

“As a professional in the fashion industry I know what people are looking for. Leather is a versatile, endurable and beautiful material. Half of the $ 5-10 billion revenues of the luxury industry comes from leather goods. It is a sizeable market, but it will not change overnight.”

Neither will the $400 billion leather industry.

High stakes

But the stakes are high. “They rely on this ancient by-product from a very brutal and earth-destroying process which is industrial animal agriculture,” Helgason explains. “On a small scale there is no harm to it, but the problem always happens when you industrialize, when you scale up, as we have seen with industrial agriculture,” he says and points to the Amazon where forests are being burnt down to make space for cattle to feed the appetite for meat and leather.

These two, meat and leather, coming from the same animal, go hand in hand. “Luckily we are not alone because others are replacing the rest of the cow. Plant-based meat and cell-based meat are slowly hitting the market.”

The mega-trends that can be observed in different markets are encouraging. For over a century, cars with internal combustion engines monopolized the automobile market. Only 20 years ago hybrid cars were introduced. “Tesla was launched and now for instance Jaguar has announced it will go fully electric by 2025. The industry has changed incredible fast. A Catalyst is required and then things happen fast.”

The cow-hide production is still at the lab stage, but will soon break out. Many technical hurdles have been overcome

“We source a cell from a cow, then engineer that cell for specific characteristics that we are looking for. We take that cell and we expand it in a bio-reactor which allows the cell to multiply to sufficient numbers.”

More environment friendly

The cells are seated on scaffolds and over 4 weeks they grow into a full-thickness cow hide. Then they are harvested and the hide goes straight to tanning.

Blade runner SDGs “Now the good thing is that our hides use 90% fewer chemicals when they go through tanning and it takes 3 days instead of the regular 7 days. When you look at traditional tanning process 80% of the weight of a hide ends up in a land-fill because they scrape off the hairs, excess meat, excess fat.  We just grow into the thickness that is actually required so there is no wastage, there is nothing extra that we grow, nothing to remove during the tanning process, no kind of shavings that go to a land-fill. We then tan and finish the hide and make products.”

Leather alternatives have been in the market since the 1960s like “pleather (plastic leather)” and in the last 10 years there have been plant-based leather alternatives from anything from grape skin to mushroom leather. “All of them have monotonous look to them and they don´t have the characteristics and usability that leather has. That is what we are solving. “

Global goals

It shouldn´t come as a surprise that, anyone interested in sustainability should focus on the interconnected meat and leather industries. In leather Production  80% of the animal hide is left unused. 83 billon gallons of water are wasted and 50 million animals are killed to supply the leather and fashion industries.  This industry certainly has the potential of contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, notably #5 Clean water, #12 Responsible Consumption and Production, #13 Climate action and #15 Life on land.

Around the world

Right now, Helgason´s company is closing funding that will allow to scale-out the manufacturing. He is relatively optimistic since they have a customer which is a sizeable player in the luxury industry.”

The idea is to start manufacturing either in France or maybe Germany. Again, the implications are the environmental impact of leather

“A few months ago”, he explains. “European car companies where found out to have used leather that turned out be from Paraguay where farmers have been displacing indigenous people from their lands to cut down forests. The car companies held up their hands and said they actually had no idea where the cow-hides came from because the supply chain of cow hides is so opaque with cow-hides from Paraguay bundled up with other hides from Brazil or America.”

This is the stage where the carbon foot prints starts to kick-in. The cow-hides may be shipped from South-America  to Cambodia or Ethiopia or other countries where the first stage of the tanning process happens. After that those hides are shipped onward to other tanneries in Europe for instance where they are finished and re-tanned and made into products.

Getting closer

“A cow slaughtered in South America ends up travelling the world a few times before being made into a product and then shipped onwards. So even if you don´t throw things away, it still has a huge environmental impact.  Our mission, is to reduce that environmental impact.”

That is why the hope is that the manufacturing, and the growing of hides can be built next to where the tanneries are and where the production takes place to reduce the environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Meat and leather grown from animal cells are not yet here but we are definitely getting closer. Many elements of the distant future portrayed in Blade Runner almost 40 years ago are a part of our daily life now in the third decade of the twenty-first century.

Come to think of it, not only snakes and owls were grown from cells in Blade runner but also humans!

“….we are not going into that direction…”


“For now I promise, yes,” Helgason says with a mischievous smile.