Wearing silk is wonderful. It's smooth, elegant, and comfortable in all temperatures. But producing and caring for the stuff poses problems. Animal rights advocates say that silkworm farming is inhumane. Traditional silk is a fairly fragile material that requires conscientious care, and on top of that, it's more expensive than cotton or polyester.
In answer to these problems, startup Bolt Threads is challenging itself to transform the apparel industry, and, following that, any other industry that relies on fabric as a primary material. Why wrangle silkworms when you can cook up a batch of synthetic spider silk-- especially if the output lacks the finicky care requirements of traditional worm-sourced silk? For the past three years, Bolt Threads has been creating and perfecting a synthetic fiber inspired by, well, spiderwebs.
The company has crafted specialized proteins and developed a fermentation process able to produce the material at scale. The magic happens at an 11,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Emeryville, California. Bolt Threads says that its fiber performs better than comparable materials already on the market, in addition to being more eco-friendly. Spider silk "is stronger than steel on a per weight basis while being very environmentally friendly," Phys.org explains.
"You look across the entire biosphere, and 3-and-a-half billion years of evolution on planet Earth has evolved a lot of cool materials we'd love to bring to consumers," CEO Dan Widmaier says
Bolt Threads' approach to material science is possible because a new field is opening up: synthetic biology. Affectionately abbreviated as synbio, it's sometimes considered a sub-field of biotech, and sometimes considered biotech's entire future. Last year, in the inaugural issue of the academic journal Synthetic Biology, editor in chief Jean Peccoud proposed that "there are early indications that cyber-biological systems have the potential to catalyze the fifth industrial revolution in the second half of the 21st century."
Advocacy group SynBioBeta says the number of inquiries it gets about its events has tripled in the past year. Tech investors are looking for the next new technology, and biotech is one of the areas they're most excited about, says biotech venture capitalist Ryan Bethencourt. "We're going to see the [synthetic biology] ecosystem look a lot more like the tech industry than classical biotech," he predicts, explaining that the big winners will get very big.
Widmaier concurs on the nature of the moment he's seizing. There's been a sea change in our understanding of how to read and chemically synthesize DNA, and how biological systems operate. "They've gone from being black boxes to being much more engineerable systems, where you can have the design-build-test cycles going on," Widmaier says. "And that fuel behind the field is what allows us to tackle some of the really hard problems."
Bolt Threads has raised $90 million from investors, including Founders Fund and Foundation Capital, and the company employs 80 people. The company announced a partnership with Patagonia in mid-2016, but no products have been formally released yet.
In terms of business model, Bolt Threads plans to mimic "branded ingredients" like Gore-Tex and Lycra, with the key addition of a direct-to-consumer component. On the branded-ingredient side, Widmaier explains, "the idea is we pick a partner [and] we work with them to try and make an amazing product that allows them to differentiate themselves to consumers and be winners in their category." This is how the partnership with Patagonia is going to work, he says.
But Widmaier also wants to learn from his predecessors' mistakes. Most branded-ingredients companies wish they had started their own consumer-facing brand, he says, because "they wanted that feedback to improve their technology over time, so they didn't commoditize themselves away when their intellectual property protection ran out."
"The economics are superior" when you're selling directly to consumers, Widmaier adds, "although the volumes are somewhat lower." He anticipates that Bolt Threads will follow the Tesla model of starting with a premium product and eventually moving downmarket when economies of scale become available.
It remains to be seen whether Bolt Threads will be able to charm enterprise clients and woo regular shoppers at the same time, or whether the market beyond Patagonia's internal teams will clamor for the company's spiderweb-inspired silk. Bolt Threads is making a bet on consumers' regard for quality and performance in a world of fast fashion, limiting its initial market. But it may be that the company's genuine technological innovation will carry it through, upending all our usual assumptions about fabric along the way.