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Chui-Lian Lee, cofounder and CEO, Werewool Image credit Werewool
Chui-Lian Lee, cofounder and CEO, Werewool Image credit Werewool

Meet the founder: Werewool’s Chui-Lian Lee harnesses microbes to create colorful fabrics… without dyes

May 24, 2024

As a student of textiles development at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), Werewool cofounder Chui-Lian Lee knew better than most that color is one of the first things we notice about a garment.

In the course of her studies, she also became painfully aware of the huge environmental impact of dyeing fabrics, an often overlooked aspect of an industry that already has a pretty bad rep when it comes to sustainability (there’s a clear downside to ‘fast fashion’).

First, dyeing is incredibly water intensive, says Lee, who visited India during her studies and saw both the vast amounts of water and energy needed to dye fabric (as much as 200 tons of water per ton of fabric), and the amount of pollution generated by residual dye—and ‘finishing’ chemicals used to fix it to fabrics—that ends up in the surrounding water.

And that’s before you factor in the carbon emissions generated by producing synthetic dyes from petrochemicals in the first place.

But what if you could create fibers with inherent color that don’t need dyeing at all?

Enter Werewool, a startup created by Lee and fellow FIT student Valentina Gomez, which engineers microbes to express proteins originally found in coral and other living sources that are inherently colorful. These are then combined with biopolymers to create fabrics in multiple shades that don’t need dyeing.

AgFunderNews (AFN) caught up with Chui-Lian Lee (CL) at the SynBioBeta conference in San Jose to discuss the genesis and evolution of her biomaterials startup.

Chui-Lian Lee, cofounder and CEO, Werewool Image credit Werewool
Chui-Lian Lee, cofounder and CEO, Werewool. Image credit: Werewool

AFN: What sparked your interest in biomaterials?

CL: I was studying textile development and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and during my time there I started to see the [environmentally detrimental] impact of the industry at every level of the supply chain.

While studying there, I met my cofounder Valentina [Gomez], who grew up in a manufacturing environment as her family ran denim mills. [As part of the course] we went to India to look at the textile industry and when we landed in New Delhi, I just remember there was an immense amount of smog coming from crop burning.

It was just shocking to me, coming from New York, to experience that, and terrifying at the same time. It felt almost apocalyptic.

We toured the golden triangle where a lot of textile manufacturing takes place and saw firsthand a lot of the water pollution and the poor working conditions.

So returning to the US and going back to my final semester, I took the biodesign challenge [a program to introduce students to the intersection of biotechnology, art, and design that FIT participated in] and was introduced to biotechnology.

That year [2018] Stella McCartney proposed this challenge to find an animal-free wool, and so of course, coming from a fashion background, we [Valentina and I] were like, yes! That’s the challenge we want to tackle!

AFN: What happened next?

CL: We started looking into self-assembling proteins and it was through this process that we discovered that proteins are more than just building blocks. They have this amazing functionality. There was a moment when one of our mentors showed me this vial of red fluorescent proteins and it blew my mind. It was a spark that sent me down this rabbit hole. What else can proteins do? Can they do this? Can they do that?

Can we replace PFAs [a group of synthetic chemicals widely used in consumer products], or can we replace this plastic that’s used in that fabric? Biotechnology just presented itself to me as a holistic solution to a lot of the problems that we’re facing in the textile industry.

Valentina Gomez l(eft), and Chui-Lian Lee (right). Image credit: Werewool
Valentina Gomez l(eft), and Chui-Lian Lee (right). Image credit: Werewool

AFN: How did you focus your research?  

CL: We started asking: can we use these proteins to make performance fibers or fibers with color? We also met with Dr. David Breslauer from [biomaterials startup] Bolt Threads, and he imparted a lot of wisdom that made us rethink how we were thinking about our materials and how we needed to make sure that we can reach price parity.

So then we started thinking, okay, how can we functionalize existing biopolymers so that we’re not using a large concentration of [expensive] recombinant proteins to make functional materials?

Initially we were working in a kitchen lab in Long Island City out of someone’s apartment, and then we got a little bit of funding that allowed us to move into Helen Lu and Allie Obermeyer’s lab in biomedical and chemical engineering at Columbia University.

AFN: What exactly is Werewool making?

CL: [Using precision fermentation and engineered bacteria] we initially replicated a red fluorescent protein that can be found in Discosoma coral. Our team has subsequently modified this protein structure to enable it to enzymatically cross link with the proteins in our base fiber composition and be more stable to the high heat it would need to withstand in downstream textile processing conditions.

So to make our colored fibers, we take plant-based proteins, which we denature; we add some polysaccharides; and we use an enzyme to functionalize [crosslink] them with our [colorful] designer proteins. The  enzyme targets amino acids on our designer protein and amino acids on our base fibers, and effectively glues them together.

Our team has also begun looking at structures to impart elastomeric properties to design novel proteins for a stretch fiber that can replace elastane.

AFN: Why focus on colors?  

CL: The main reason is that the textiles dyeing industry is one of the most polluting industries on our planet, so for us, what is really important is that we are able to keep the chemistry really green.

AFN: You don’t have a background in synthetic biology or biochemistry… was this a challenge?

CL: It takes a team, right? When we first started out, we were being mentored by someone who was a plant biologist, and we started with the basics. What are proteins? How do they fold? How does this enzyme target amino acids on this protein versus this protein?

So a lot of our initial tests were a case of, does this protein have the amino acids that would attract it to this plant protein that we’re using in the base biopolymer? But later on, going into Columbia University, we were able to leverage the expertise of Allie Obermeyer, who is a chemical engineer who designs proteins for functionality for biomedical purposes, so that made a huge difference.

There’s no question about the market demand for this. My focus is all about making sure that we have the right expertise in-house, so we have spent the past year building an incredible team. But it’s also about making sure we have the right partnerships in place to help us reach scale. We can’t do everything internally and we know that the fastest way to market is by leveraging industry expertise.

AFN: Precision fermentation is expensive. What inclusion rates of these colorful proteins are in the final fabric?

CL: So with [Werewool’s designer proteins accounting for] 2% of the total fiber composition right now, we can achieve color.

AFN: How does that compare to a synthetic dye?

CL: It depends on the dye, but if you’re talking about pricing, the thing that has to be factored in with synthetic dyes is that there’s the cost of the chemical compound itself, but you also need fixatives and different agents to fix the dyes to the material. So there’s a lot of inputs, a lot of heavy metals, plus the cost of the water and energy used in the dyeing process.

I don’t necessarily believe there will be price parity between the two, but the key differentiator is that we don’t require a dyeing and fixing process. So we’re taking out processing steps [as the fabric made by the yarn containing Werewool’s materials is already colored]. In the industry, we call it dope dyed, as the color is already built in at the fiber level so it doesn’t require further downstream steps.

AFN: What about natural dyes used in textiles, including pigments made via microbial fermentation?

CL: For a while the industry was looking towards natural dyestuffs and there are companies out there such as Colorifix producing pigments from microbial fermentation. But there are challenges with natural dyes including the residence time needed in dye baths to fix them to materials. Plus you still need mordants [mineral salts that fix with the fiber allowing natural dyes to bond to it], which can require heavy metals. Something like 95% of the clothing we wear still uses synthetic dyes, so it’s a huge problem.

When we started the company, we were thinking holistically about how do we reduce water usage? How do we reduce energy use? What processes can be cut out? And that’s why we really thought it was important to build in the color at the fiber level.

Werewool shades
Werewool can create multiple shades via its process. Image credit: Werewool

AFN: What shades can you make and how vibrant are they?

CL: Right now we have about eight colors in-house that we’ve been able to produce. It’s all about engineering them to be stable to downstream textile processing conditions, to make sure that they’re retained and don’t denature during processing.

What’s really cool and what we’re so excited about is the color chemistry. So we’ve been able to combine a blue protein with a fluorescent green protein to create an apple green, for example. We can create shade variations and depth depending on [the designer protein] concentration used within our fiber composition.

AFN: How scalable is your technology and how cost-effective might it be at scale?

CL: We’ve been working on our economic analysis, and as a product we need to hit about $4 per kilogram for production of our proteins with color. But as I said, when we think about end product cost, you don’t need to dye the fabric with our process, and the dyeing process itself is about 20% of end product costs [for fabric].

For the designer protein production, we’re still at benchtop scale, and there’s a lot to do in the areas of bioprocessing optimization to hit a decent titer to reach the price points we need. For the biopolymer production [combining the plant protein isolates, polysaccharides, Werewool’s designer proteins and the enzyme to crosslink them to the plant proteins], that doesn’t require any new physical infrastructure.

Currently, we’re using E.Coli to produce the proteins, but we’re not going to scale with that. In future we’ll probably use yeast or fungi, as utilizing an organism that can express  [the target proteins] extracellularly [eg. secrete them into the fermentation broth] will significantly decrease the costs associated with downstream processing and ultimately our end fiber cost.

AFN: How much have you raised and what kind of reception have you got from investors?

CL: With dilutive and non-dilutive funding, we’ve raised $4.15 million and we’re currently raising a seed extension for another $6 million.

We found two amazing investors: Material Impact and Sofinnova Partners [who funded a $3.7 million seed round last year]. We really do think about the impact of our materials throughout every stage of the lifecycle and that’s what I love about working with them. They understand that it’s not just raw material impact; we have to think about what happens downstream; we have to think about the end of life of our materials.

There are a lot of companies now that are working on new biopolymer compositions that are designed to degrade. We also have a lot of really amazing companies that are designing additives for functionality. But it’s really hard for a lot of these new materials to gain traction in the market because as we all know, sustainability isn’t commanding the price premiums we need.

But I think our competitive advantage is that we’re not just making a new material that is designed for degradation. We’re also offering performance and color without concessions.

AFN: What happens to fabrics made with your colorful fibers at the end of life?

CL: We’re about to start biodegradation studies, as we want to make sure our materials degrade in ambient environments. We don’t want them only to degrade in controlled conditions, because we know that we can’t necessarily control where our materials go. So we want to make sure that they’re not toxic to soil or water.

The way we’ve designed a lot of the crosslinking, we keep the end of life in mind, so we’re thinking about polymer chain size and things like that to make sure that the material can break down.

For degradation, it’s all about the microbial environment, so it would be proteases [enzymes that chop up proteins] essentially, that would break down our materials. But we’re still evaluating that. The goal is to make sure that they can degrade using natural organisms.

AFN: What about durability before the end of life? What if I put your fabric in a washing machine with detergent at high temperatures multiple times?

CL: Once you produce it, the color is locked in. But as you know, detergents have a lot of enzymes, so we have to work on stability.

AFN: What is your business model at Werewool?

CL: We’ve designed our fiber formation system to plug into wet spinning infrastructure that’s used to make acrylic fibers [synthetic fibers from petrochemicals] or rayon or viscose [from cellulose].

Our goal is to license out our technology and keep working on developing more fibers with expanded functionality such as anti-microbial qualities, UV protection, and increased moisture management.

AFN: What IP do you have?

CL: We filed a patent on our fiber composition as well as the enzymatic crosslinking process.

AFN: What’s your immediate focus?

CL: We’re currently able to produce a few hundred grams of our fibers at a time and working with an external CRO [contract research organization] for some fiber production. We’re about to start some pilot projects with some brands to understand product market fit, and make sure that we’re building something they need and can use.

AFN: What interest have you seen from the fashion/textiles industry?

CL: We won the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award in 2020, which is what actually kicked us off as a company. Prior to that we were just doing research.

People are really excited about the potential for performance properties, plus the industry is trying to reach certain climate goals. Companies are under pressure to reduce emissions but also to take responsibility for the whole lifecycle of their products.

Our material can allow them to reduce their chemical footprint and their carbon footprint through eliminating one of the most energy intensive processes [dyeing].

I’d say overall the fashion industry is finally getting on board with the idea that it needs to make commitments to biomaterials through offtake agreements and through having an input at an earlier stage so we are building materials that are useful.

Further reading:

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

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