It’s turning out to be a big year for biomaterials in fashionwear, especially now that a handful of startups are building a new class of materials and getting plenty of attention. With success stories like those of Bolt Threads’ spider silk apparel, Pangaia’s sustainably grown seaweed-fiber and flower joggers, and MycoWorks’ mushroom leather, it’s becoming easier for companies to go the sustainable route. Even sportswear powerhouse Adidas announced a new no-plastic and no-waste footwear venture.
The latest startup to become part of this niche segment is Modern Synthesis, a UK-based biomaterials manufacturer that has created a microbial textile platform. The firm’s technology leverages bacteria to transform sugar from agricultural waste into nanocellulose, a biodegradable material valued for its abundance and its strength. Through its new process, which the company considers similar to 3D printing, pieces can be designed to shape, resulting in zero scraps of leftover material and waste.
Since its inception in 2019, the startup has focused on creating new biomaterials to replace animal and petrochemical-derived fabrics that could help the fashion industry lower its carbon footprint. It seems that goal will be possible now that the company has raised $4.1 million in seed funding to support its microbial textile technology.
Funding from this latest seed round, which closed on June 1, 2022, will also go towards a new pilot facility in southwest London, increasing Modern Synthesis’ capacity to collaborate with brands and manufacturers aligned with its mission. The upcoming building will serve to scale the production of biomaterials as quickly, widely, and responsibly as possible, declared the company on a social media post. Furthermore, the planned site will house a lab, along with sampling and pilot production capabilities, house a larger team, and is on track to begin operations in the third quarter of 2022.
Modern Synthesis co-founder and CEO Jen Keane said she was “excited to finally be able to talk about the fantastic group of folks that came together for our seed round to help us get a new category of bio-fabricated materials out in the world! We are thrilled to be partnering with a group of investors who share our optimism for a brighter material future and bring a wealth of experience from both biotech and fashion sectors to our team.”
Backers for this round include VC firms AgFunder (also an investor in MycoWorks), Acequia Capital, Collaborative Fund, Ponderosa Ventures, and Possible Ventures, as well as nonprofit environmental organization Parley for the Oceans, former Jimmy Choo CEO Pierre Denis, and Climate Capital Collective, an investment firm that supports companies that directly or indirectly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
Instead of creating a replica for a material like leather, Modern Synthesis says it is focused on developing an entirely new material that is more sustainable and can replace non-woven fabrics such as leather – and in the process, building out a completely separate category for materials.
AgFunder subsidiary AgFunderNews reported that Modern Synthesis’ microbial weaving process mimics the warp-and-weft technique of traditional weaving to create a customizable biomaterial in roughly 10 to 14 days. Similar to 3D printing, pieces can be designed to shape, but first, engineers create a scaffold, using robotics to place fibers in the desired shape or structure. Then, genetically modified bacteria grow around those structures to make the final material.
So far, Modern Synthesis has filed the first patent application for its microbial weaving tech and has been able to build the upper part of a shoe using this process. Additionally, Keane collaborated with Imperial College London graduate student Marcus Walker to create a prototype shoe made of the first self-dying bio-assembled material grown by a genetically modified organism, later launched at Hong Kong business incubator The Mills Fabrica. And the company says it has delivered its materials to a “key sportswear customer” for prototyping and plans to eventually leverage microbes to displace a variety of animal- and petrochemical-derived leathers, textiles, and films.
“At the end of the day, we’re trying to build a circular manufacturing system with these microbes,” says Keane. “That enables us to leverage agricultural waste and use the microbes as manufacturing units and transfer them into more viable materials. On the flip side, we see the opportunity to have new-class materials that are fully cellulosic, so we can recycle them back into silos and recycling streams,” explained Keane, who has a strong background in fiber sciences and has worked at companies like Nike, Adidas, and Bolt Threads.
Biotextiles may not be new to the fashion industry, even dating back as far as the 1930s. However, experts consider that bio fabrics couldn’t achieve a breakthrough because luxury brands opted for natural fibers instead of synthetic ones. But things have changed, and customers now demand biofabrics as part of the ethical fashion movement, so the biotextile market is experiencing a surge of innovative startups and could become huge by 2028.
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