Malai is a bio-based material fermented in coconut water and natural fibres coming from agricultural waste. It is a flexible and durable biocomposite material with a feel comparable to leather or paper. The material has been developed by Malai Biomaterials Design Pvt Ltd, a material research and design studio based in Kerala. Co-founders Zuzana Gombosova and Susmith CS chat about the process of developing Malai and the future applications of the material.
How did you come up with the idea of Malai? When was the first sample developed?
Zuzana Gombosova: I started working with bacterial cellulose during my Master's in London around 2013. The project focused on microbially grown materials for the future. The Malai project started after I and Susmith met in Mumbai in 2016.
Susmith CS: We both are designers and we share similar views about materials and sustainability, and of course coconuts. We believe in the need to have sustainable materials in order to make sustainable products. Malai started as a result of our personal experiences of what it takes to produce a material. We wanted to produce materials that have more benefits than disadvantages for the environment and the user. We quit our corporate jobs and moved to Channapatna, to focus on material development. The first sample was developed six months and almost 100 recipes later.
Who are the major investors in Malai? What was the initial seed capital?
ZU: Our journey had the humblest beginnings-we started with our savings. Material development is unlike material research or product development. The seed investment was by my mother, who has been supportive the whole time throughout this journey.
What does Malai mean?
ZU: The bacterial cellulose grown on coconut water is called nata-de-coco, meaning cream of coconut, in Philippines where it originated. Malai literally translates to cream in Hindi or Swahili simply meaning best of materials.
How big is the market for vegan leather? Is the importance of leather shrinking?
SU: The market for vegan leather is relatively new and small but growing; some sources estimate it to be a $93 billion industry. Unfortunately, pleather, the most widely used of the vegan leathers, is made of plastic. We focus on the importance of choosing right materials for the application. The consumer today demands more products than any other time of the history. Our material, Malai, is renewable in a short time which simply means we can make more Malai within a given resource and time as compared to leather. There are no good and bad materials, it all depends on the correctly considered application.
What is the process of making Malai? How long does it take?
SU: Malai is a cellulose-cellulose biocomposite material. The major raw materials are coconut water and natural fibres. The natural fibres are processed to improve their surface properties. The role of coconut water is to provide nutrients for bacteria while producing bacterial cellulose. This bacterial cellulose is nano-material with a three-dimensional fibrous network and this glues together natural fibres via hydrogen bonding and physical entanglements forming the biocomposite. Starting from the raw materials, making of Malai takes 3-4 weeks depending on climatic conditions.
Is Malai as strong and durable as real or artificial leather? Can it be dyed and processed?
ZU: Malai is strong as leather in tensile strength. Durability of the material is better than artificial leather, but needs improvement compared to animal leather. We use natural dyes for making coloured Malai such as indigo, madder or cutch.
What future applications do you foresee for Malai?
ZU: We are in the quest of making a material superior than leather. This is only the beginning. Our approach to material development is sequential, since different class of products demand different material properties. We believe we will be able to use Malai for all the applications leather and its alternatives are currently used.
Where do you source raw materials for Malai? Where is your manufacturing based out of?
SU: The raw materials are sourced from different locations in South India. Malai manufacturing studio is based in Cherthala in central Kerala.
Where do your clients hail from?
ZU&SU: Our clients are mostly from EU and the US.
Are you working on any other biomaterials?
ZU: All our research is now focused on Malai. Before we narrowed down on Malai, we were working with natural rubber based biocomposites, coco peat and water hyacinth-based packaging materials.
What are the future plans at your company? Do you plan to manufacture merchandise?
ZU&SU: We intend to be primarily material designers. We work with designers and companies to develop products to introduce our materials. We would also have limited edition collections made by Malai studio for special occasions and on request. (HO)
Published on: 22/11/2018
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