Innovation to deliver sustainable silks, wool, down, fur and exotic skins – such as snake and crocodile – is being overlooked in favour of leather alternatives. These underserved product categories signify a lack of competition, which make them attractive to investors looking to enter the next-gen materials industry.
That’s the view of Tecnon OrbiChem’s biomaterials expert Doris de Guzman, whose special report Luxury brands & next-gen biomaterials maps the 2023 landscape for innovation globally.
Non-profit think tank theMaterial Innovation Initiative(MII) qualifies next-gen innovation as a material comprising at least 50% plant or microbe-derived, mycelium, cultivated animal cells or recycled input.
While a report by the organisation estimates publicly-disclosed deals in the space at $477 million in 2022, fewer than one in five of the 100-plus companies tracked had achieved commercial-scale production.
Brands embrace next-gen biomaterials
That means unsustainable fossil and animal-based materials continue to dominate the fashion and apparel sectors. Athletic apparel company Nike for example – in common with most fashion brands – attributes up 80% of a product’s environmental footprint to its raw materials.
With consumer and regulatory pressure growing, brands are increasingly integrating next-gen materials into their products. The range of routes to launch and test new sustainable materials includes in-house innovation partnerships says de Guzman. Brands explore next-gen materials by launching capsule collections. Defined as a condensed version of a design vision, capsule collections are often limited edition.
They enable the observation of consumer reaction and desirability assessment but with a significantly reduced financial or reputational risk. Such reduced output projects are also perfectly matched to early-stage materials development programmes that may not have yet matured to commercial scale.
'Many innovations are targeting next-gen leather applications,
leavingsilk, wool, down, fur and exotic skins with limited innovation efforts'
Tecnon OrbiChem biomaterials expert Doris de Guzman
Fruit by-product fibres
Italy's Orange Fiber produces fibres and fabrics from fruit by-products. The company constructed a plant in Sicily in 2020, producing its first ton of cellulosic fibre thereafter. Previous brand partners include high street brand H&M and luxury goods sellers. However, in 2021 the firm partnered with Austria's wood-based specialty fibres producer Lenzing Group.
Their shared aim was to realise a lyocell fibre made of orange and wood pulp in a limited edition offering. Lyocell is a semi-synthetic fabric which commonly substitutes cotton or silk. In fact, it is a type of cellulose-based fibre that has grown exponentially in the new millennium.
And in the textile industry overall, cellulose is the fastest growing fibre group. Analysts at German research and consultancy enterprise the nova Institute identify cellulose fibres as the bioeconomy’s largest investment sector.
‘Most next-gen material companies go to market with a minimum viable product while continuing to refine and improve the performance, aesthetic and environmental impact of their material,’ de Guzman adds. This is because ‘the majority are in the early concept stage, conducting research and development, in prototype production or building production facilities’. It is an output level that provides the perfect match for a collaborative capsule collection approach.
Of the 102 companies that MII focused on in its report, more than almost two thirds are targeting next-gen leather. This, de Guzman explains, leaves categories such as silk, wool, down, fur and exotic skins with limited innovation efforts.
Tecnon OrbiChem’s chemicals data intelligence platform OrbiChem360 puts the current price of North American polyester filament at around $3-4/kg. Raw silk, meanwhile, reportedly averages around $55/kg.
‘These underserved product categories mean a lack of competition in the biomaterials space, which may be attractive to innovators and investors.’
Not only does raw silk’s substantially higher price point makes it an attractive proposition for investment, the potential environmental benefit from its redevelopment as a sustainable, renewable or so-called ‘green’ material is significant. With the MII estimating silk production at around 160ktpa, it is currently responsible for a hefty environmental footprint.
As well as using an exorbitant amount of water – cocoon cooking and silk spinning combined use over 150 litres per kilogram output – up to 20 kg of firewood is said to be burned in its production process. Source
Source: Silk production Quang Nguyen/Pexels
A biobased b-silk protein from US-based materials solutions company Bolt Threads is processed using sugar, water and yeast. This mid-sized enterprise was founded in 2009 and is targeting a myriad of applications in beauty, textiles and biomedicine with the innovation.
It has partnered biotechnology research company Ginkgo Bioworks – based in Boston, US and founded in the same year – which specialises in novel functional protein synthesis. The latter's protein strain engineering expertise is being leveraged to improve sustainability, efficiency and cost-effectiveness throughout b-silk's manufacturing process.
Bolt Threads' cellulose blended yarn fibre – designated Microsilk – featured in a collaborative concept offering from British designer Stella McCartney and sports brand adidas. The biofabric replicates spider silk fibres sustainably at a large scale through bioengineering and, like real spider silk, biodegrades at the end of its life, according to Bolt Threads.
In a separate innovation, synthetic spider silk from Japan-based Spiber was used by outdoor apparel brand the North Face. Spiber's brewed protein platform – which ferments plant-based ingredients – is suitable for manufacturing fibres, films and other types of materials.
Microbial cell factories
Microbial cell factories are engineered microorganisms that manifest biosynthetic pathways streamlined to produce chemicals from renewable carbon sources. While bacteria are indeed microbes, it does not follow that all microbes are bacteria. However, a process patented by German biotech company AMSilk to deliver a spider silk biopolymer from genetically-engineered microbes is underpinned by bacterial specimens. The proteins it yields can be processed into gel or powder for consumer goods or spun into textile fibres. The material is said to be 15% lighter than conventional synthetic fibres, and fully biodegradable.
Early in 2023, the firm partnered with Evonik to scale up production at the German specialty chemicals company's contract development and manufacturing precision fermentation site in Slovakia.
Leather-like materials mushroom
Another Bolt Threads innovation – designated Mylo – is a vegan material made from mycelium, the root-like system of a mushroom. Platformed within Italian fashion accessories manufacturer Vivolo's green alternative materials, it is used by a diverse range of brands from high end Chanel and Armani to high street fashion outlet Zara.
Having engineered a process to grow mycelium stacked in vertical farming facilities, the cells' diet of sawdust and other organic materials facilitate its delivery of a supple-like leather alternative material. The first Mylo material products became available in 2022 through its consortium with adidas, Kering, lululemon and Stella McCartney.