by Rachel Arthur
MAR 10, 2017 @ 09:05 AM
Biotechnology is about to get a major breakthrough in the textiles department – a market-ready manmade spider silk product is launching at SXSW this weekend.
Bolt Threads, a San Francisco-based start-up working on the next generation of advanced materials, is unveiling a limited edition knit necktie, made of its 100% Boltspun spider silk.
“We wanted to demonstrate the reality of a completely new way of manufacturing textiles, one that has nearly unlimited potential for innovation and also produces a sustainable product,” says Dan Widmaier, CEO at Bolt Threads.
On the basis of the textile industry being one of the dirtiest in the world, the sustainability angle is a critical one. “What we’re showing is how we can make performance fabrics that we can scale up, without using a barrel of oil or agriculture sources,” he tells me.
Indeed, the material is the result of seven years of research and design in a lab. “At the molecular level it is spider silk made by human hands,” Widmaier explains. More specifically his team of dozens of scientists, engineers, technicians and designers, have developed a way to closely mimic silk created in nature by producing a fiber from corn syrup that was fed to a yeast fermentation, which secretes a 80kDa Major Ampullate (dragline) spidroin protein. Once the protein is harvested and purified into a powder, it is wet spun into fibres, twisted into yarns and knitted into the tie.
The important part to note is that Bolt Threads has worked out how to do this at mass scale, with both quality and cost taken into account. “As we have learned over time, the technology is hard, but the scale is even harder to accomplish. We see this as a milepost in the readiness of technology and scale,” Widmaier says.
“For a material like spider silk, it feels like it’s been spoken about forever, but for all the talk, it’s never arrived. It’s never been a tangible thing out there for sale, put into the hands of the consumer. This is us saying, it’s time to put a product out there. This tech we’ve talked about for a long time, it does work, it’s ready to come to market.”
Competitors in the market such as Japan-based Spiber, have released concept pieces, like The Moon Parka for The North Face. Similarly Adidas recently teamed up with AMsilk to unveil a shoe made from Biosteel fiber, which it aims to both have on the market later this year and incorporate into wider performance products down the line.
But Bolt Threads, which announced a $50m round in Series C funding, as well as a partnership with outdoor retailer Patagonia in 2016, has never released even a prototype on the basis of wanting to do this properly. “We wanted the first thing we put out there to be available to purchase, to touch and to use,” he adds.
The design of the tie itself very cleverly represents the molecular structure from which it’s built: a chevron pattern reflecting the antiparallel beta sheets of the protein. Beyond that, the tie is otherwise merely a demonstration of the fact the technology is ready, rather than an indication of the extreme performance spider silk promises.
“We see this as the beginning of the story,” says Widmaier. “We’re releasing it in limited quantity to put a statement out there, but there will be more to follow.”
A limited edition run of 50 of the ties will launch at SXSW following Widmaier’s talk on Saturday, March 11. Attendees will be able to enter via a lottery system on the company’s website, which is open until March 14, with winners invited to purchase one for $314.15.
Beyond that, the company’s new 11,000 sq ft fiber spinning facility will soon start producing ever-expanding quantities. “As we ramp up, more volume will become available and you’ll see more product come out. It’s built, the hardware is all there but we’re still in star-up phase right now. This tie launch is the beginning; there’s lots of cool stuff to come,” Widmaier adds.
He envisions a universe of materials and products that utilize the same platform, with this just the first step towards commercial apparel production.
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