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Mainstreaming Sustainable Innovation

Biomimicry in Action

We have all seen or experienced innovations based on the science of blending biology with technology.  Two of the best-known examples of the science of studying nature to make more effective products for man’s use include:

  • Speedo’s sharkskin swimwear or full-body LZR suit:  proudly displayed on the svelte bodies of 2008 Olympic swimmers.  Speedo’s designers studied the performance properties of the “dermal denticles” of the outer surface of sharks, that were found to create a low-pressure zone when sharks were in motion, effectively pulling the shark forward while reducing water drag.  And guess what, it worked.  Speedo reported that 98 percent of the medals won in that Olympics were from swimmers wearing their LZR (pronounced Laser) swimsuits.

  • Japanese bullet trains designed from Kingfisher birds’ beaks:  engineers faced a problem with their upgraded high-speed bullet trains as they entered tunnels to pick-up passengers on the waiting platforms:  shock waves known as “tunnel boom” were extremely loud but more critically, caused structural damage.  Looking to the Kingfisher bird’s beak, engineers gave the bullet trains a more aerodynamic, streamlined nose that allowed the trains to reach higher speeds, consume less energy, and most importantly, avoid the disruptive sonic splash. 

What is Biomimicry ?

The study of nature to guide the designs of human invention is called Biomimicry.  The idea behind biomimetics has been around for centuries but the term biomimicry was coined and popularized a little over 20 years ago by the scientist and author, Janine Benyus.  She defined biomimicry as a “new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems.” 

The Usefulness of Biomimicry

Looking back upon the two examples of biomimicry design above, we can say that the products developed did indeed solve timely problems, one more consequential than the other.  It is arguable whether human invention is needed to catalyze elite swimmers to swim faster.  And in fact, Speedo’s LZR suits were banned from use after the 2008 Olympics. 

The newly engineered bullet trains solved a problem needing a functional fix:  transporting tens of millions of daily commuters to and from work smoothly and without catastrophic disruption.  All good and yet, the question arises:  can the concept and application of biomimicry do more than design high-performing products and machines?  Can it solve industrial problems with sustainable solutions?  And the answer may very well be at the tip of our fingertips, or better said, held between our thumb and pointer-fingers like that of a dandelion flower, waiting for us to give it the proverbial blow so that it’s seeds whisk off in all directions to populate in distant corners and opportune fields. 

Bolt Threads: A BioTechnology Company Using Biomimicry at Scale

Biomimicry has come a long way from its first inception to be a tool to make things more sustainable.  The Biomimicry Institute offers a more refined definition to the one first proffered by Benyus.  The institute defines biomimicry as “an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.”  Many industries can and have benefitted from this study of nature-as-solution approach including buildings, wind turbine manufacturers, hospitals and healthcare, and agriculture.  One company that is applying learnings from biomimicry in textile manufacturing is Bolt Threads.

Bolt Threads is in its ninth year of making synthetic spider silk in a lab, with the application of the silk to be the raw source material for making textile goods.  Think:  hats, scarves, neckties, and shirts. The company’s co-founder and CEO, Dan Widmaier, who holds his doctorate in Chemistry and Chemical Biology, began secreting spider silk proteins in a university lab in an effort to create synthetic material from the process.  Bolt Threads was born from this initial work.  Bolt Threads “brews” synthetic silk in a lab using DNA sequences (or proteins) from spiders.  Those protein sequences are put into a proprietary yeast brew, that is fed to grow at a fast rate (as yeast is want to do) in steel tanks.  From there, the silk mixture is centrifuged, purified into a powder, mixed with a solvent and made into a gooey liquid of silk similar in texture to glue.  From there it is extruded through a pipe with holes to make strands of synthetic silk that is then woven into a raw fiber, ultimately to be used to make apparel products.  Bolt Threads has named its biomimicry source fiber, MicroSilk, which is a combined reference to both biology and nature.

Bolt Threads has been working hard to refine its technology, stabilize the process of making its lab silk, and commercialize its textile products. Respectable strides have been made over the last year.  The company acquired Best Made Co. in 2017 in a bid to allow it to scale its production and directly reach a consumer audience for outdoor apparel products. That same year, 100 beanies made with 40% Microsilk and 50 limited-edition neckties from 100% silk were sold to the masses. Both products were extremely limited-edition.  Bolt Threads also has a strategic relationship with Stella McCartney, who provides the coolness factor to products made from synthetic silk. McCartney is expected to incorporate Microsilk into her 2019 high-end women’s clothing line, however, the number of product types and quantities have yet to be identified.  The company’s strategic partnership with Patagonia has languished to date, mainly due to the outdoor company’s volume requirements to meet its retail market needs.  Scale is the challenge Bolt Threads has yet to conquer.

Infusing a Market-Driven Industry with Scalable Sustainability

The promise of Bolt Threads is undeniable.  The company’s ability to shift the textile market away from its reliance on man-made petroleum-based fibers is both exciting and desperately needed. Synthetic silk[i], made from proteins and a mix of water, sugar and yeast, can be absorbed back into nature.  It is recyclable by design because its design is based on nature, even though its production takes place in a lab. The same cannot be said about polyester in all its various iterations.  Use of polyester in textiles exceeds that of cotton, making up more than 50 percent of fibers used in textile manufacturing globally.   And that volume is expected to grow another 10% by 2025.  Polyester, a polymer made from coal and petroleum, is incapable of bio-degrading.  It fills our landfills and finds its way into our oceans.  The opportunity Bolt Threads presents is the ability to scale the production and use of synthetic silk:  products made from it do not pollute the environment and more promising, could easily be remanufactured into “new” pieces of clothing and accessories or soft good items for the home. 

Amplifying Innovative Sustainability Solutions Through Open-Source Technology Sharing

Widmaier sees a way forward and away from a manufacturing model where inputs become waste after use.  He expresses the hope “that companies like…Bolt Threads will be seen as making sustainability more mainstream…”  Mainstreaming an idea, an innovation, and a process that solves human challenges with sustainable solutions requires scale, a broad scope, mass adoption, and affordable pricing.  Why are we necessarily relying on one company, Bolt Threads, to struggle tirelessly and somewhat slowly (at least in terms of market penetration) to bring a revolutionary product to market?  Why aren’t stalwart companies that are brand-forward, customer-centric, and richly endowed with untouchable R&D budgets, partnering with Bolt Threads in a strategic effort to help support and build this technology for a more rapid deployment in various sectors of the textile industry.  I am thinking here about the Nike’s, Adidas’ and Under Armour’s of the world who dominate performance athletic apparel worldwide.  How about companies such as The Gap, H&M, and Polo Ralph Lauren who hold sway over the spectrum of clothing from the discount to haute couture.  And think about all the carpeting that’s sold in the U.S. alone.  Wouldn’t a commercialized synthetic silk fiber be seen as a potentially enviable market opportunity for carpet manufacturers such as Shaw Industries, Mohawk Industries and Beaulieu of America?

The big idea here is to change the ‘business as usual’ way of approaching new innovation.  In the well-established, multi-national firms you have a “develop in secret” mentality; keep new technologies hidden behind closed-doors until its perfected and ready to wow the world.  But when we think about leading in a sustainable world, the industry of making products and the manufacturers within, of all sizes and strengths, must embrace the new philosophy of our times.  These we know:  the internet of things, the shared/sharing economy, open sourcing, the Cloud, and Blockchain to name the biggies.  In this new market paradigm, where the old is bumping up and seeking to embrace the new, companies must shed their proprietary methods toward creating innovation, and instead, take the leap of trust into the bath of open knowledge, shared incentives, leap-frogs in understanding, and parallel paths to mainstreaming innovative and sustainably-minded ideas.  This is how we get Bolt Threads and its recycle-by-design synthetic silk commercially-scaled and embedded into diverse sectors of industry that are just begging for its arrival, whether they know it consciously or not.        

TripleWin Advisory develops sustainable business cases and supports strategic decision-making for companies.  In so doing, it provides businesses with continued profitability, relevancy, and longevity in the market.  Learn more.

[i] The hope and goal of synthetic silk production is that it can be imbued with greater qualities than its natural counterpart, such as the ability for it to be easily washed, dyed, and convey UV protection.   

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