A San Francisco startup is giving spiders and silkworms a run for their money. Bolt Threads has developed a synthetic, “programmable” alternative to larval- or arachnid-produced silk. Engineered using proteins derived from yeast, the fibers can be manipulated to deliver any combination of softness, strength, and durability. They’re even machine-washable.
“Think of the strength a delicate, pliable spiderweb must have to stop insects hurtling through the air,” Jim Kim and Tanguy Chau, members of the venture-capital group Formation 8, explained in a post on Wednesday. “Apply those properties to textiles, and you get a fabric with 100 times the strength of reinforced steel but that is as soft and flexible as the most comfortable fabrics.”
Bolt has yet to decide if it’s going to make its own clothes or supply the fabric to third-party apparel companies, or both. Still, Silicon Valley is betting that Bolt’s silk could supplant petroleum-based textiles such as polyester, Lycra, and nylon, or even natural but resource-intensive fibers like cotton.
With plans to launch high-performance products—think mountain-climbing apparel and other elite athletic wear—as early as 2016, Bolt isn’t wasting any time.
“We are on the verge of a total transformation of consumer apparel that will reach every person on the planet,” Kim and Chau said. “By producing silk in the lab, Bolt Threads doesn’t have to rely on thousands of silkworms, a species struggling due to climate change. And its production methods give Bolt Threads great flexibility to innovate and be efficient in its use of natural resources.”
While other companies have made similar advancements in the past, many stumble in the transition from lab to market, they added. Bolt, on the other hand, is prepared to scale up production to manufacture tens of millions of pounds of fabric.
Bolt’s breakthrough represents “just the first in a wave of technology-driven products from natural materials,” said Kim and Chau.
“The achievements of Bolt Threads should encourage entrepreneurs and investors to look beyond their comfort zone of apps and software to support true innovation and science,” they said. “Together, we can unleash the true power of technology to address real problems and improve the lives of people around the world.”