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Seaweed-based yarn from Keel Labs. Image credit: Keel Labs

‘People don’t realize how much fashion needs new materials’ but biomaterials investors can be hard to find, say experts

May 16, 2024

Fashion brands are desperately seeking new, sustainable materials as they come under increasing pressure to produce garments with improved environmental credentials, experts told the audiences of last week’s SynBioBeta conference in San Jose and Rethinking Materials in London this week.

The fashion industry is estimated to account for roughly 8%-10% of global carbon emissions, while only 1% of textiles produced for the fashion industry are recycled. The vast majority end up in landfills or incinerators.

“A lot of people don’t realize how much the fashion industry needs new materials,” Jen Keane, founder of Modern Synthesis and a former designer for Adidas, explained on a panel at SynBioBeta. Her company has developed a microbial cellulose material to replace non-woven fabrics like leather. [Disclosure: AgFunderNews’ parent company AgFunder is an investor in Modern Synthesis.]

“I think people don’t realize how many bags and shoes are actually made [on average in the fashion industry]. We’re talking billions and billions of tons of these [synthetic] materials produced every year. Most of them cannot be recycled, and it is all going to the landfill.”

Many customers, said Keane, are now holding brands accountable for lowering their planetary impact. Brands in turn are starting to realize that “the majority of their impact is coming from their raw materials.”

“There are things they can do in the short term, like move to renewable energy or shift to slightly better sources, but none of that’s going to solve the problem that they need new materials to actually bring [their climate impact] down in the long term,” she noted.

Emma Hill, founder of sustainable fashion brand Damson Madder, speaking to AgFunderNews on the sidelines of Rethinking Materials this week, is also aware that materials are a significant source of the fashion industry’s carbon footprint.

Keel Labs, which makes a seaweed-based fiber called Kelsun that the company says is a drop-in replacement for synthetic materials, has had its fair share of fashion brand demand. After Keel participated in the Bio Design Challenge, Stella McCartney, an early trailblazer in the world of leather alternatives for high fashion, reached out wanting to collaborate, said Keel founder Aleksandra Gosiewski at SynBioBeta.

The partnership with Stella McCartney began before Keel Labs even had a product ready.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm and she’s notable in the design stages [of fashion] for being a pioneer and a leader when it comes to pushing new innovations, pushing the parameters,” Gosiewski noted. “And she was one of the early designers to commit to vegan products exclusively in luxury, which was crazy [at the time].”

Keel Labs’ yarn is designed to work with existing yarn and textile production machinery.

For Keel Labs, the success of the partnership was about “nurturing those relationships early on. And when we were ready, their team just plugged us in and we put together a few pieces for the runway show in the fall.”

“Most of these brands are actively looking for new innovations like ours to drive this change,” added Keane. “But also there’s an advantage for them to be the front runners in this fashion space. Fashion is driven by newness, by constant innovation. And so this is actually a strategic advantage for them to partner with us to not only give them sustainability credentials but also be the first to implement these new technologies.”

A leather-like material made from seafood waste. Image credit: TomTex

Setting investor expectations

While panelists agreed that more investors have surfaced who are interested in investing in climate tech or next-generation materials more specifically, they also emphasized the need to set expectations around timelines. This is especially critical if the biomaterials sector hopes to avoid the kind of over-hype that befell the plant-based foods or vertical farming segments with which investors are now disillusioned.

“This isn’t an industry where we’re going to turn something out in a year and be profitable and IPO,” said Gosiewski. “It’s definitely a long, long journey to be on, and I think we need to be transparent and make sure you’re finding the right people who are ready to take that journey with you.”

Ross McBee, co-founder of TômTex, which makes textiles from waste streams, talked on the SynBioBeta panel about “being quite frank” with would-be investors: “I think investors are, rightly, a little spooked in this space. A couple of times something has blown up or slumped. [We are] perhaps over-correcting for that.”

Notable examples of this include Bolt Threads, which had to pause operations on its mycelium-based material last year after struggling to fundraise, and circular fashion business ReNewCell, which went public and then, earlier this year, declared bankruptcy despite having multiple brand collaborations in the works.

A group of investors speaking on a panel at Rethinking Materials this week, including the founder of GANNI Nicolaj Reffstrup, referenced ReNewCell, with Reffstrup expressing his disappointment at its closure, which he and the other panelists put down to a lack of the right type of funders. Reffstrup said that GANNI had collaborated with the company and that it was an excellent product.

Reffstrup, who is also a partner at Look Up Ventures, an investment platform that backs startups in energy, carbon, food, and, of course, materials science, believes that a major issue for biomaterials companies attracting investment is a lack of long-term and solid offtake agreements with brands and other buyers. Look Up Ventures is working on a platform to aggregate demand for biomaterials companies in the form of offtake agreements almost like a derivative.

“There’s so much you can achieve if you have the offtake agreement – look at what the amazing team at Syre is doing with polyester recycling. But there are many industries where people don’t know what it means, or they might do a pseudo one but it has so many loopholes and it’s never going to come to fruition,” he told AgFunderNews last month.

“We think we can get big companies to pledge to do offtake agreements so that startups know exactly what they’re working towards, and they know there’s a reward at the end of it. Then using those aggregated offtake agreements to [justify] investing in some of these companies to help them build the at-scale facilities we all need so badly.”

Reaching the scale needed to truly disrupt the current materials commodity market was another key talking point of the investor panel at Rethinking Materials. The representatives of two much later-stage infrastructure investors — European Investment Bank (EIB) and the UK Infrastructure Bank — said they had yet to find biomaterials projects to invest in, either equity or debt,- that were at sufficient technology readiness level or size of the types of deals they would do.

But as Reffstrup said, “There is money out there so I don’t think we should focus on the gap but in helping companies structure deals that are palatable to those investors.”

Joris Rademakers, director at Just Climate, indicated on the sidelines of the event that it was almost as much about business model innovation as tech innovation for these companies to structure themselves and their growth for success.

Speaking at SynBioBeta the week before, Modern Synthesis’ Keane said that while certain investors may need education about the category, “the speed of innovation happening right now in materials is completely unprecedented. We’ve been able to turn around technologies in just a few years that other materials folks would have only dreamed about 100 years ago.”

Dyes made with designer proteins by Werewool. Image credit: Werewool

Other considerations for startups

Beyond investors and fundraising, biomaterials startups also have to think about performance. Strap strength, seam strength, color fastness and tear resistance — among many, many other properties — undergo countless tests. Realistically, these new materials have to perform as well if not better than their synthetic counterparts in order to scale, said panelists.

Keane also suggested a test for “emotional aesthetic”: How does the material feel? How do humans react to it?

Next-gen protein fiber company Werewool‘s co-founder and CEO Chui-Lian Lee highlighted the economics of price parity with synthetics and the importance of communicating those to stakeholders.

“A lot of the materials [used traditionally in textiles] that are imported into the US or exported or grown are subsidized by the government,” she noted. “With the need of these new biomaterials, we’ll see more legislation that will help innovators like us reach the price points we need to commercialize.”

Lee also suggested startups think carefully about the environmental impact of the new materials they are creating. “We can’t control where materials go right now; there’s not the infrastructure in place to recycle them.

“What are the downstream processes that are going to affect the degradability and the toxicity of our materials to the environment? What about human health, the dyes we’re using, or in our case, the proteins? It’s about the interaction with the environment and preserving biodiversity.”

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