Spider Couture: The emergence of spider silk for applications from fashion to protection

July 21, 2016 |

BD TS Spider silk 072216 smSince roughly three minutes after the Chinese figured out how to use silkworms, people have been dreaming of farming spider silk, for its exotic qualities of flexibility and strength.

Spider Silk Strength: Stronger Than Steel

Material Toughness  Tensile Strength Weight 
Dragline spider silk 120,000-160,000 1,100-2,900 1.18-1.36
Kevlar 30,000-50,000 2,600-4,100 1.44
Steel 2,000-6,000 300-2,000 7.84

The problem with spiders

After roughly 2,000 years of stops and starts, an industry is emerging based in advanced biotechnology’s ability to synthesize the proteins and ferment them. Turns out, getting the spiders to work like silkworms is like getting elite big-wave surfers to embrace the sport of curling.

Well, it’s actually worse than that. Spiders work alone, and here’s the secret reason. They’re cannibals. So, the yield curve goes down rapidly, as they devour each other. Eew.

But, back to the product, not the questionable morality of spider world.

Bolt Threads emerges

If there was any doubt of the allure and near-term appeal of these synthetic proteins, Bolt Threads raised $50 million in a Series C venture round at the end of May, on top of the $40 million raised last year in the Series B, and Patagonia joined as a strategic partner to deploy the technology at some future date.

Bolt Threads uses proprietary technologies to create Engineered Silk fibers based on proteins found in nature. These programmable fibers represent “the most significant innovation the textile industry has seen for decades.” Bolt says. (Apparently the use of computers to program looms didn’t quite make Bolt’s innovation list — but we’ll put spider silk, for sure, in the Top 3 if it realizes its promise).

The founding team originally received grant funding from multiple sources, including the National Science Foundation, and raised Series A funding from Foundation Capital, Mission Bay Capital, and Zygote Ventures. Formation 8, Founders Fund, and Alafi Capital came in with Series B, and Nan Fung and Innovation Endeavors joined with Series C. Together with partners like Patagonia, Bolt Threads is pioneering more sustainable and non-toxic processes for textile manufacturing.

So, a sector composed of one compelling technology at one innovative company? Hardly, though Bolt’s legendary status as one of those half-dozen companies that used to fall out into the street every time you opened a closet door in Emeryville — there are others in the hunt.

Bolt’s take on Silk BioCouture

“Silk is a wonderful, versatile fabric,” says Bolt. “It’s soft and breathable and remarkably warm. Woven silk—think pajamas and silky dresses—is very different from a silk knit, which was the original technical base layer. Silk has fallen out of favor for everyday wear because it is not an easy care fabric. (And for guys, silky shirts went out with disco.) Our fabrics will combine the best qualities of silk, but will look and feel quite different from traditional silk, and also be easier to wash and wear.”

And there’s Kraig Biocraft

Last week we heard fascinating news from one of them. Michigan’s Kraig Biocraft Laboratories received a contract valued at up to $1.0 million, if the option phase is awarded, for the development of high performance fibers for protective apparel applications. The Company will deliver ballistic shoot packs constructed from its proprietary Dragon Silk material for performance testing.  These shoot packs will be tested and evaluated for critical Soldier protective applications including ballistic impact.  If awarded, the option phase will significantly expand this work with the US Army.

What’s the big difference, technically?

But don’t think for a second that Kraig is a fermenter of synthetic proteins. Rather, they re-engineered silkworms to produce spider silk. As Kraig puts it, “Our technology simply harnesses that production capacity by introducing a genetically engineered silkworm that produces recombinant spider silk instead of mundane silk.”

Sort of like re-programming the cow to provide chocolate milk.

Well, actually, Kraig has created approximately twenty different genetically engineered spider silk fibers based on certain genetic sequences.

“Dragon Silk scores very highly in tensile strength and elasticity, which makes it one of the toughest fibers known to man and the ideal material for many applications,” stated Jon Rice, COO. “Providing material for this ballistic shoot pack initiative is an important next step for Kraig and spider silk. This contract reinforces the many significant potential applications for recombinant spider silk. Today is a great day for spider silk.”

Bolt is genetically engineering yeast and bacteria to excrete protein into the soup that they live in, while Kraig is engineering the worm.

In this fermentation process microorganisms are grown in bulk, in a growth medium, Kraig estimates that fermentation technologies produce a 1,000 liter batch of GMO yeast or bacteria used to excrete recombinant protein costing $700,000 to $1,000,000 to produce and manage, and a cost of $35,000 to $50,000 per kilogram of silk protein, based on a protein yield of 20 grams of usable silk protein per liter. And there are costs for purification and wet-spinning added in on the back-end.

By contrast, Kraig says it has a cost “below the $300 per kilo threshold.” Now, that’s say-so, and it’s Kraig’s, so caveat emptor on that one. But it gives us some starting points on cost.

Alas, Kraig Labs is the only recombinant spider silk producer to provide performance specifications on our recombinant spider silk’s strength and elasticity.

The Market

In 2012, the global market for technical fibers reached approximately $133 billion.  The demand for technical fibers is expected to reach $160 billion in 2018.  In 2015, du Pont’s segment sales in this market (with its products Kevlar, Tyvek, Typar, Nomex, and Sontara are estimated at $3.5 billion. In addition to the performance and technical fibers markets, the Company is targeting the multibillion-dollar silk market. The market for raw silk fibers alone is a $5 billion market.

What do you do with it? Besides catching flies, or flying through New York City.

The potential applications for spider silk products include the following textile markets:

  1. Medical textiles
  2. Geotextiles
  3. Textiles used in Defense and Military
  4. Safe and Protective Clothing
  5. Filtration Textiles
  6. Textiles used in Transportation
  7. Textiles used in Buildings
  8. Composites with Textile Structure
  9. Functional and Supportive Textiles
  10. Performance Sportswear
  11. Traditional Fashion Apparel

A funky exotic military and protection app

A new app has emerged, besides the anti-ballistic features (in English: bullet-proof vests). Turns out, we might be able to use spider silk as a fiber optic chemical sensor. So, sniffers. Who would’ve thunk it?

Another in the Troika of Spideys

Over in Germany, AMSilk just raised a new capital round (amount undisclosed, best we have is “double-digit million EURO amount”). AMSilk is focusing on medtech and industrials — and received support from AT Newtec and MIG, the existing institutional investors.

And the best news? It’s already a commercial company.

AMSilk is also using biotech to develop an organic high-performance material modelled on spider silk. The company has already introduced a number of products and applications. Specifically, the biopolymers for use in medical technology, cosmetic and personal care products as well as our Biosteel fibers in industrial applications & textiles.

The capital raised will allow AMSilk to implement the next steps of their growth strategy. Plans include increasing production of the high-performance fiber BIOSTEEL, financing the clinical studies of medical products and expanding the distribution activities of the cosmetic ingredients and personal care division.

Together with a leading European manufacturer of breast implants, AMSilk plans to conduct a clinical study on breast implants coated with AMSilk silk biopolymers. The market introduction of the silk-coated breast implants, whose tolerability is significantly higher compared to conventional breast implants, is expected to take place already in 2017.

Additionally, AMSilk plans further investments in the field of application technology to use the AMSilk high-performance biopolymers in cosmetic ingredients as well as to further enhance the patent position of the company, which currently includes more than 20 patent families.

The Bottom Line

Peter Parker — not your ordinary dude, and neither are these three companies coming along. Exciting stuff. Watch this space.

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