Meet Ictyos, the startup transforming fish skin into leather

Ictyos, a startup in the LVMH program, recycles fish skin and transforms would-be waste into luxurious marine leather.

Founded by three chemical engineers, Emmanuel Fourault, Gaulthier Lébure, and Benjamin Malatrait, Ictyos is on a mission to bring innovation and new ethical and environmental values to the luxury sector. The trio has invented a recipe to recycle fish skin and transform it into a beautiful marine leather. Depending on the fish on which the leather is based, marine leather can look like lizard, crocodile, or something completely unique. We interview co-founder and CEO Benjamin Malatrait to learn more about their business and, more importantly, to ask him: does fish-based leather smell like fish? Keep reading to find out.

STATION F: What was the impetus for starting Ictyos?

Benjamin Malatrait: We are three friends from engineering school. We gave ourselves the challenge to launch a company with a strong positive environmental impact, a company that would participate in the world that we want to create, that of tomorrow. And for us, the world of tomorrow is a world in which we use our resources intelligently with innovation, meaning, and impact.

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We noticed that fish skin were not transformed into leather. In fact, they were not even recycled until today. Few are transformed into oil or collagen for miscellaneous products, but this practice remains anecdotal. The big majority of fish skin end up in the trash. Today, that represents about 50 000 tons of waste in France and 500 000 tons in Europe every year. If we do not take care of this organic waste, it generates carbon dioxide and decomposes itself, hence leaving a huge environmental impact.

At Ictyos, we are proposing an alternative by collecting and recycling fish skin coming from the food industry. This is an important factor for us: we don’t use any fish that are only bred only for their skin and not consumed; we also don’t use fish that are consumed but in a problematic way — I’m thinking about sharks and whales, for example. It is not in our ethos. When we talk about fish leather, we’re talking about the fish that we eat in restaurants in France, regularly.

We raised €100k in royalty crowdfunding at the end of 2018 to finance research and development in finding a leather transformation process based on vegetable tannins rather than on mineral tannins, which is still used for the vast majority of leathers today. 

Why vegetable resources? 

Because we are trying to make sure that we use a maximum of renewable resources in the process; and that starts with the most emblematic molecule in leather transformation, tannins.

We innovate quickly. Every year, we are able to develop a new type of leather in the tannery that we put in place at the end of 2019. Earlier this year, we integrated the LVMH program at STATION F, La Maison des Startups. We have presented our leathers to a dozen of Houses. We are proposing an alternative to crocodile leather. In the same way as fur, crocodile leather is a luxurious material that is strongly frowned upon and can be a source of bashing. We are proposing to replace the sense of luxury that is attached to the rarity of a skin with engagement in savoir-faire, innovation, environmental and ethical impact.

Our leather is 100% made in France, recycled, and processed using vegetable tannins.

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So, you are striving towards a circular economy for leather, transforming what would have been waste into good.

That’s exactly it! We want to avoid fish skin becoming trash. Today we have placed recycling bins in many Sushi Shops in Lyon. It’s a yellow bin that is placed in their freezer. We’ll collect the fish skins leftover from the making of sushi. We’ll treat everything from the fish scales to the meat.

Is scaling a challenge for you?

It’s a challenge, of course, but there’s a very huge volume of fish. Today, we’re consuming more and more fish, less and less meat. The average person in France consumes 20 kg of fish per year and 10% of the fish’s weight corresponds to the skin, which means that every year, a French person will generate about 2 kg of fish skin, indirectly.

Scaling is especially challenging because of the specificity of our craft. In other words, each skin is biologically different. We’re not on linear processes. We have fish that are more or less fat according to seasons. And that’s the whole job of a tanner: to know how to juggle the differences in transformation. Today, we have already moved to a semi-industrial scale because we’re capable of producing tens of thousands of pieces of leather per year in our small atelier. We started with a handful of skins; we’re now able to transform by thousands.

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What other sources of fish do you have aside from Sushi Shops?

We also work with people in fish farming for sturgeons in the region of Aquitaine. These are people who breed sturgeons for their caviar and who will also seek to valorize the skin on top of consuming the meat in “rillettes”. We will collect the skins, which initially had no usage, and transform them into leather. In the case of sturgeon, it is an exceptionally unique skin.

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We also work with carps from ponds in the north of Lyon. In this case, we collect the skins from fish filleters, people who prepare fish for restaurants. They have plenty of fish skins and were not doing much with them before until recently.

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What is the difference between mineral tanning and vegetable tanning?

There are three major types of processes to transform a skin into leather. The idea is to make the skin imperishable so that it becomes a rot-resistant material.

To go into some technical details, the objective is to create links between the collagen fibers. To create links, there are many types of linking molecules. On the one hand, you have vegetable tannins, which are extracted from oak, mimosa, and quebracho trees. They can also come from fruits, leaves, roots, barks, or trees. Vegetable tannins are very diversified and have a plethora of sources. We have developed a well-proportioned recipe with many vegetable tannins, which allows us to create soft leathers that are very colourful.

The majority of leathers on the market today are transformed with processes using metals: chrome or aluminum. These processes are a lot quicker and a lot more solid. A chrome-tanned leather will not change in time while a vegetable-tanned leather will age. We will be able to tell if a leather good has 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 years of age. It ages like good wine. And, that’s really interesting.

Metal processes also require drastic treatment of water and inflow because the latter will contain metal. A chrome-tanned leather will also always contain traces of chrome, which will sometimes cause irritations for those who are allergic to the metal (about 3% of the population). 

We are proposing a solution that uses vegetable tanning and that is hence hypoallergenic. Horse saddles, for example, are always developed using vegetable tannins because horses are very sensitive to chrome-tanned leather and cannot have that on their skin.

Does fish leather look like leather as we know it?

It will depend on the leather. Sturgeon leather does not have any equivalent it’s somewhere between stingray and crocodile. There’s no simple comparison.

Salmon leather will look like lizard skin with thin scales.

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Does it smell like fish?

Not at all! Actually everytime that I do a pitch, I’ll also ask myself the question.

It does not smell like fish in the same way that cow leather does not smell like cow or that crocodile leather does not smell like crocodile. It is part of the job of the tanner to create a smell for the leather. Marine leather has an odour but that of leather and not of fish. Leather plays with a lot of senses: touch and smell. We will never be able to replace leather with other vegetable materials.

Where can I find Ictyos in stores?

We collaborate with different millieux: watchmakers to make wristbands, luxury brands for leatherwork, saddlery, interiors of airplanes, furniture, paintings, shoes, glasses, and so on. Even Google has ordered a few pieces of marine leather from us!

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At the moment, we have a collaboration with Jean Rousseau, the Parisian luxury leather goods brand. In their limited edition collection, you can find Ictyos leather watch straps and beautiful iPhone cases.

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What is your goal in the long term?

In the first place, we want to inspire luxury with environmental, ethical, and innovation values. However, that is not all. We want to have an impact on the quality of the fish that we will be eating tomorrow. By supporting the right actors, those who breed fish in proper conditions, we want to have an impact on what will be on the plates of consumers tomorrow.

Interview by

Cindy Yang
[email protected]