Where Synthetic Biology Meets Textiles
Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field combining biology and engineering that is being applied to textiles, where living organisms have the potential to become both the machine and operating system of bio-fibers and bio-fabrics. Two notable areas of innovation are: bio-leather (lab-grown, but biologically identical to traditional leather) and spider silk.
Demand Push Towards Cultured Leather
The global leather goods market was USD $93.2 billion in 2016 and will reach USD $121.16 billion by 2022 at a CAGR of 4.47% during the forecasted period. Within this large addressable market, market dynamics are challenging top brands and creating opportunities for alternative clean leather companies as part of the larger sustainability focus. Nike was one of the earlier big brands to make sustainability a key issue, which was recognized by financial analysts at the time. Fast fashion giants Zara, H&M, TOPSHOP and Asos have also introduced their own sustainable lines.
Faux or artificial leather, usually made from petroleum derivatives and undergoing harsh chemical treatments to mimic the appearance of leather, has been used as an affordable alternative to leather but often creates some environmental problems of their own. Reliance on artificial leather could become a source of reputational risk for consumer brands as sustainability goes beyond simply replacing leather to considering what the replacement is made from and the environmental impact of production.
Using bioengineering techniques, companies like Modern Meadow, Provenance Biofabrics and VitroLabs are making bio-leather, leather that is biologically identical to genuine leather but grown without animals. These companies have the potential to become disruptive in the leather market, which has not seen much sustainable innovation, both by producing leather in an ethical and sustainable way and by producing superior leather that is free of natural imperfections.
Modern Meadow pivoted to the leather market from the meat industry, making leather from yeast-expressed collagen, the primary component of skin, at costs that are on par with traditional leather. The company has raised USD $50 million in funding and is currently working to bring ZoaTM to market by 2019. The material can take on any shape or form and can be applied in different ways, including spray-painting and binding. Provenance Biofabrics, an earlier stage company, also uses cell-expressed collagen to create leather. The company is working to extend its tissue engineering technology to other animal cells to synthesize exotic hides such as crocodile and ostrich. If successful, it has the potential to disrupt and broaden the exotic leather market by making what were previously a highly exclusive materials accessible to a wider group of consumers.
The Market Pull for Spider Silk
Spider silk, often referred to as the super silk, is five times stronger than steel and more elastic and waterproof than silkworm silk with applications from apparel to medicine. Unfortunately, spiders are territorial and cannibalistic, making farming a difficult venture. With the advancement of science, companies can now use genetically engineered hosts (e.g. yeasts, silkworms and goats) to express spider silk, and for the first time, the commercialization of spider silk is within sight. In the near term, the market size will be limited only by the output of the innovative companies venturing into bio-synthetic production.
Two companies lead the pack, with Bolt Threads at USD $221 million in paid-in capital, and Spiber at USD $144 million. While the two have slightly different technologies (Bolt Threads works with yeast and Spiber works with E.coli), they have both established development and channel partnerships with brands such as Stella McCartney and The North Face, and have developed prototype consumer products. Kraig Biocraft Laboratories is targeting a different market. Together with the US Army, it is developing its spider silk technology to use in protective textiles, and has started to establish a supply chain in Vietnam. Kraig Biocraft Laboratories is undergoing its first phase of commercialization scale-up in Quang Nam, where it plans to construct a factory to support its expected output needs.
Synthetic biology is only beginning to be applied in the textiles industry, and companies are already offering both process and product innovations that allow superior materials to be made in more sustainable methods. There are also companies like Algiknit and Algalife that are working on making potentially carbon-negative textile and dyes from algae. Keep an eye on this space to see how these technologies develop.