Evolved by Nature aims to make supermaterial producers out of silkworms, and Chanel’s a backer

October 7, 2019 |

Chanel has been on the move of late going deeper into sustainability, of course reminding one of how Coco Chanel used to say “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.”

Just last December we reported that the French luxury house decided to back Sulapac’s development, thus becoming its first investor coming from the cosmetic industry. Aiming to tackle the accumulation of non-biodegradable plastics, Sulapac has developed an innovative material which responds to consumers’ growing desire to find environmentally friendly products or packaging.

Chanel embraces Evolved by Nature

But for all the ambitions relating to sustainable fashion, even more daunting has been the investment front in transformative wearables, and this past summer Chanel invested in a younger company, Evolved by Nature, a pioneer in silk science and creator of Activated Silk – pure, natural silk in liquid form. Once dissolved in water, Activated Silk’s features become available for pairing with different materials, to naturally enhance fabric properties and advance more sustainable production methods.

Two things are especially intriguing about Evolved By Nature. Fist, it’s not a fermentation platform aiming to replace natural silk with synthetics. Second, the applications are potentially far broader than simply making a high-value fabric, traveling the same silk road to market that merchants have happily trod for centuries.

Today, let’s explore Evolved by Nature in some more detail. 

What is Evolved by Nature?

Evolved By Nature’s chemistry platform is based on its patented Activated Silk technology, which is pure silk in liquid form. Activated Silk, an entirely natural and sustainable technology, replaces many of the harsh, hidden synthetic polymers, plastics and additives commonly used to make products in industries ranging from apparel to personal care to medical. Activated Silk can be configured into dozens of different molecular compositions to achieve desired results. Silk experts, Drs. Gregory Altman and Rebecca Lacouture, founded Evolved By Nature in 2013, and the company is backed by a diverse group of investors.

What’s different about it?

Silk is prone to folding on its own, and sometimes when we do the downstream processing, it starts to fold up and becomes useless to us as a fabric source.

And there’s nothing wrong — and many exciting potentials — with the search for alternatives to natural materials like silk, that offer better performance.

However.

Fermentation uses a lot of energy — for example, to maintain the high temperature of the fermentation broth. That energy is probably coming from fossil fuels, at least in part. Separation and purification is energy intensive. And there’s the source material for the cells — is that sustainable? Most agriculture at scale is using inorganic fertilizer.

So, producing synthetic alternatives to silks have sustainability challenges to overcome, as well as technical challenges. And the technical challenges can be daunting, not just because it’s hard to train a microbe to make a spider silk, or any silk. 

You see, when we make silk, we are making a protein-based polymer. It’s great to have a synbio process for producing a tailored, designed product, but it’s always the back end that causes the problems. And, some of the processes we know render the protein inactive. Silk is prone to folding on tis own, and sometimes when we do the downstream processing, it starts to fold up and becomes useless to us as a fabric source.

That’s been the main reason that we don’t see shirts at the mall.

The alternative — training silkworms to work better

As Evolved by Nature CEO Greg Altman told the Digest, “ The silkworm is one of the most sustainable sources we have, the worm is using 100 percent solar powered mulberry leaves, which supports consuming CO2. And in natural silk chemistry, the worm is doing the purification for us. So, how do we create better options, and bioengineer a better natural silk? You don’t want the silk to crash out of the solution and start to fold.”

And with that, Evolved by Nature began a journey to develop a homogenous silk that would stay soluble in water for a very long time — through that path, as Altman put it, “we could make the silk protein dance, depending on what music we play. We want to lay it down on nylon, lay down on cotton and repel water. We found that some forms could penetrate skin, while other forms coated the skin. That led to skin care and how to replace plastics in leather.”

What do you do with an evolved silk? Well, think about more sustainable cotton and nylon, for one.

There are a number of simple targets. For example, yoga pants are coated in silicone to make them slippery. That silicone is dissolved in toxic solvents. And, once washed, those silicone particles detach and begin a journey towards the ocean, where they become dioxins.  Silk and nylon? Use Activated Silk as a coating instead, and virtually all microbes have the ability to secrete a protease that breaks it down, and you can count on it being biodegraded.

There are other targets. For example, wool gets coated in plastic to make it shrink resistant and washable, and eventually, that plastic falls off. Wool also has to be washed in chlorine, a process that can lead to dioxins. Wool, however, is a protein almost identical to silk, and by coating wool with Activated Silk, Evolved by Nature can reduce pilling, a common problem where wool fibers break and shed.

The Technology story

As Evolved by Nature explains:

“First, we get natural silkworm cocoons from trusted suppliers. Raw silk starts in the form of a cocoon spun by a silkworm that has eaten organically grown mulberry leaves. These cocoons are made up of one very long strand of fiber consisting of two proteins.

First, there’s fibroin—pure silk protein (and the secret behind Activated Silk technology). Then there’s siren, which acts as a “glue” that keeps the fiber together. Every cocoon consists of these two proteins and, because we don’t need the fiber strand to remain intact as the textile industry does, we can use cocoons that otherwise would have been discarded.

“Then, we turn the silk into liquid form. We introduce salt and water again, this time to solubilize the fibroin—changing it from a fiber to a liquid. The salt is then removed through our proprietary purification process. The end result? Pure silk protein in liquid, a platform chemistry with hundreds of possible molecular compositions. In its final state it’s simple, but the chemistry of Activated Silk technology is unmatched. Now, the full potential of natural silk can be applied.

Next, we isolate the pure silk protein. We wash the cocoons in a simple bath of hot water and salt. This process allows us to remove the sticky outer sericin layer, leaving us with pure fibroin. After drying, the fibroin looks like a thin, white yarn—but its true power hasn’t been activated. Not yet.

Next, it goes to our partners and their customers. Our partners use Activated Silk technology to replace harsh chemicals in the products they sell to their customers. Because of the unique chemistry of Activated Silk, it can be customized to work in different ways a partner needs it to. And it always means that our partners can give their customers the same products they love—now healthier and better than ever.

The Progress to date

As Altman explained, “We are commercially viable, and working on moisture management in apparel. We make activated product in Medford, and we ship into mills, whatever stage of the wet process the mill is using. They can swap out silicone for activated silk, and the process is entirely compatible with their current manufacturing process. We are not asking anyone to change, we ship globally at scale, and are economically viable. We’re not asking people to go from $49 to $499 to have yoga pants. Our coating surface can strengthen, and in this case do it just as well as plastic resins.”

The natural story

Activated Silk is non-GMO, non-toxic (no BPA, phthalates, formaldehyde or other harmful ingredients commonly found in consumer goods), made from organically grown cocoons and sustainably produced.

The Functional Attributes story

Activated Silk technology replaces the harsh finishing agents that you can’t see, but are often on common materials—from nylon to cotton to polyester. That means they can be produced more sustainably, used more responsibly and recycled more safely.

It has some pretty interesting properties. It’s moisture-wicking, faster drying, has more efficient absorbency, colors last longer, it recovers well from stretching, it resists abrasion, is resistant to shrinkage and pilling, and is durable in the washer. 

The Bottom Line

Think brighter brights and white whites. And, greener greens, if you will.

Or, as Coco Chanel once put it years ago, “”Elegance is when the inside is as beautiful as the outside.”

More about Evolved by Nature, here.

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