Floral waste has found new purpose, courtesy Phool.co, an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur-backed biomaterial startup which has developed ‘fleather’—bio-degradable vegan leather made from discarded temple flowers.
“Fleather is a viable alternative to animal leather,” claimed Ankit Agarwal, the co-founder of Phool.co, who was among the 17 young leaders from across the globe selected by the United Nations for its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) initiative in 2018.
In India, leather is used in several industries, from fashion apparels to saddlery.
India produces 12.9% of the world’s hides, which is greater that 3 billion sq foot per year.
“We convert floral waste into charcoal-free incense products. But last year, we decided to explore the development of animal-free leather. Intrigued by the formation of a leather-like white layer on unused piles of flowers, our R&D team discovered the growth of a micro-organism which used flower petals as a nutritional source,” he said.
“Leather contains collagen which provides it strength and durability, whereas fleather has chitin, a kind of protein, that gives it the same properties. Collagen and chitin are natural analogues, making fleather a perfect substitute for leather,” he said.
Professor Amitabha Bandyopadhyay of the biological sciences and bioengineering department in IIT Kanpur said, “Fleather will be a game changer. The fashion industry will surely use this vegan leather. I am happy that such a technology was developed at Startup Incubation and Innovation Centre, IIT Kanpur. Fleather was recently awarded by PETA.”
Professor Abhay Karandikar, the director of IIT Kanpur said, “For a young entrepreneur, this is remarkable commitment towards nation-building.”
IIT Kanpur has been Phool.co’s backbone for technical research. The R&D team comprises Sandeep Kumar, MTech (biotechnology) from IIT Kanpur and Saumya Srivastava, MTech (biotechnology) from IIT-Guwahati. The team is led by Nachiket Kuntla, BTech (chemical engineering) from IIT Bombay and MTech (chemical engineering) from IIT Kanpur.
Talking about the research, Ankit said, “We identified the biological species and grew strains of similar species in the lab and isolated the best species in terms of strength and growth rate for further research. We developed a technique to extract the maximum nutritional content from the flowers and introduced certain additives to make a final medium that would trigger the growth of the micro-organism as well as enhance the properties of the fleather sheet.”
“We adapted the micro-organism to increase the thickness and strength of the fleather and better its texture. The tensile strength, elasticity and sheer resistance of fleather is matching or is rather superior to that of traditional leather,” he said.
Phool.co was founded by Ankit Agarwal and Prateek Kumar in July 2017.