Academic-turned-biotech expert Sophia Wang is at the forefront of the fungi movement which is all in the name of fashioning a greener future. Ellie Pithers reports.
What’s Sophia Wang – a literature PhD who studied experimental American poetry at UC Berkeley and helms her own punk rock dance company – doing running a biotech start-up that harnesses the power of funghi? Perhaps it’s worth turning to Sylvia Plath for answers. “We shall by morning / Inherit the earth. / Our foot’s in the door,” read the closing lines of her 1960 poem Mushrooms.
“Plath is oracular in her observations,” says Wang, when we meet on Zoom to discuss MycoWorks, the company she co-founded with the artist Philip Ross in 2013. If it hasn’t inherited the earth just yet, MycoWorks certainly made headlines in the fashion world in March when it announced a collaboration with Hermès on the creation of Sylvania, a new premium, natural material grown from mycelium, the threadlike network of filaments in fungus. Using MycoWorks’s patented Fine Mycelium technology, Sylvania will feature in Hermès’s reimagined Victoria bag alongside calfskin and canvas elements when it debuts in late 2021.
This is a big deal. Hermès is a heritage brand built on exquisite leather craftsmanship. That it was willing to spend three years working with MycoWorks on an alternative suggests that the California-based start-up has epic, or at least poetic, potential. Indeed, so-called “mushroom leather”, which should really be known as mycelium leather, is the current front-runner in the fashion industry’s scramble to find a viable, ethical, non-plastic, low-carbon alternative to animal leather that is also biodegradeable. Note the quotation marks. Though Sylvania and MycoWork’s flagship product, Reishi, is categorically not leather, it feels and looks like it – and that’s good news for the fashion industry.
“If you think of the triple-helix collagen structure of an animal hide, mycelium has a three-dimensional network structure that we’re also working with that gives it its strength,” explains Wang. In the case of Sylvania, Wang describes it as “a refined and supple material, with a surprisingly plump and slightly springy hand. It has incredible softness and pairs beautifully with [Hermès’s] existing leathers and textiles.” Wang first came across mycelium in 2007, when her co-founder Ross was using it to create sculptures. Where it differs from traditional leather is in its potential for customisation and fine-tuning. “We have an entirely traceable growth process … so we can offer brands immense flexibility in terms of customisation of thickness, dimension, surface feature,” says Wang.
Both of the company’s products, Reishi and Sylvania, can be treated exactly like leather. Here’s the science bit: Fine Mycelium is produced in the MycoWorks facility in Emeryville. MycoWorks feeds agricultural leftovers such as sawdust to ganoderma, a type of fungus commonly found in Asian remedies. The lab controls conditions such as humidity, light and temperature in order to coax the funghi into a flexible sheet form. In the case of Sylvania, those sheets are then cured and finished in France in the Hermès tanneries, given the same colour gradient and hand feel as traditional leather, and shaped in the workshops by Hermès craftspeople. In the case of Reishi, MycoWorks transforms its sheets of biomaterial with its own tannery partners.
There is a big sustainability draw here. Making leather from a cow is a multi-year process which involves human labour, water consumption, chemicals and wastage. Funghi, meanwhile, grows well in the dark and in mild temperatures in a low-energy process that can take as little as two weeks. But there is also the possibility of myriad design innovations. “It has capacities that traditional materials do not – because we can grow to form, because we can customise. That is really inspiring to brands and designers,” says Wang.
Wang is good on the inspirational part – all that epic poetry is coming in handy. Despite being the daughter of two biochemistry scientists – her dad, a cancer research scientist, even has his own mushroom-based start-up developing an alternative medicine for lung cancer patients derived from funghi – she was determined to pursue her love of storytelling as a teenager. She studied English and visual arts at Colombia University, then embarked upon a PhD at UC Berkeley. In 2007, she met Ross, who was creating mycelium-based sculptures and artworks and researching its manufacturing potential for things like insulation and packaging on a corporate scale. When interest in his work began to mount, he asked Wang if she’d like to start a company. “At that time, I was finishing my PhD and recognising that I was being called to worlds beyond the academic,” she recalls. “I wanted to have a more material impact on the world and on my community. It seemed like an amazing opportunity.”
Today, after a year of rapid growth, their company numbers 100 people, up from 40 at the beginning of 2020. In November, it closed a $45 million (£39 million) funding round with Natalie Portman and John Legend coming on board as investors. Ross handles the “long-term, visionary field for the applications of the technology”; Wang is focused on “steering the culture and values,” telling “the story of the company and making sure that our values are consistent externally and internally,” as she puts it.
It’s a responsibility she takes seriously. As a woman, not to mention a woman of colour, she’s sat through meetings where a potential investor has mistaken her for Ross’s girlfriend. Though the last year has been one of worldwide cultural reckoning, she insists: “It’s been an amazing opportunity for education and also sort of practising institutional accountability and allyship. We have had some really interesting conversations about diversity and equity inclusion programmes at the company, which we’re putting more resources into.” In her downtime, Wang is reading Exterminate All The Brutes, Sven Lindqvist’s history of the origins of white supremacy by way of European colonisation, as well as Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism, which critiques techno-capitalism.
She’s also dancing. “I came to it late, when I was 30,” she laughs. “I had been a rock climber for about 10 years and was looking for a different physical practice that was more creative, that had a lot of rigorous training. So, I started to take ballet classes and just became obsessed.” In 2010, she co-founded the Brontez Purnell Dance Company; this week, it released a dance movie at a film festival in San Francisco which was filmed in MycoWorks’s empty Emeryville production facility, before it was turned into the company’s pilot plant. “I’ve been really moved to see it now because I captured the space in a moment of potential that you’ll never see again. It’s built out now into our headquarters. But we have an amazing document which is sort of the pre-history of that space.”
It’s tempting to reach for a mycology-related metaphor when looking at the future growth of the company. MycoWorks has several big brand partnerships lined up for 2021 which it hasn’t yet disclosed. But success for Wang is about ubiquity, not status relationships. “Mycelium grows pretty much everywhere on the planet, its feed stock is widely available bi-products from agriculture and the lumber industry. This is a highly portable technology that you could co-locate nearly anywhere in the world and you could empower local communities with potentially local specimens of funghi to be creating fine materials for a variety of applications.” The foot is in the door, as Plath put it – and the largest living creature on earth is finally getting its moment in the spotlight.
Original article appeared on Vogue UK | Author Ellie Pithers