In this blog[i] we will explore how the same biotechnological improvements that are contributing to the rapid growth in alternative food proteins are also opening new possibilities for textiles and materials. The same technologies are helping create next generation materials, improving manufacturing processes and even helping to recycle plastic-based materials. Supported by falling production costs, the possibilities are encouraging but the unintended consequences need to be considered.
The growth in the alternative protein space has been rapid over the last few years
According to the Good Food Institute, the alternative protein industry raised USD 3.1billion in investments in 2020, three times more than the USD 824 million invested in the previous year, making a total investment of USD 5.9 billion since 2010.[ii] Indeed, alternative proteins have now entered the mainstream with the IPO of Beyond Meat in 2020 (current valuation of USD 8 billion[iii]), the IPO of Oatly in May 2021 (current valuation of USD 11 billion[iv]) and the expected public listing (likely via SPAC) for Impossible Foods sometime in 2021-2022.[v]
This growth is no accident. The improvement and convergence of biological and informational technologies have resulted in a whole new set of possibilities for food – alternative protein products are now finally becoming good enough and cheap enough to compete with traditional meat and animal productsi– see Figure 1. An underlying driver has been biotechnology where the exponential improvement in cost and capability has made even Moore’s Law look slow.[vi]
Figure 1: Alternative protein costs are reaching cost parity. Source: BCG[vii]
Materials are not exempt from this biological revolution, which centers around micro-organisms. Humans have been using micro-organisms for thousands of years – to make simple foods like bread and beer, before harnessing micro-organisms to make citric acid,[viii] penicillin and insulin.[ix] Today, we have the ability to use and programme micro-organisms to produce all sorts of complex molecules, such as proteins, across medicine, food and materials.
Proteins perform a wide range of functions, acting structurally or as an enzymes, carriers or hormones. The number of proteins that potentially exist is vast and with many proteins yet to be discovered, almost infinite functional possibilities remain.[x] Biotechnology has given us access to these proteins by enabling us to programme microbes to produce any protein or, indeed, any molecule.
Microbes have the potential to impact the textiles market in three main ways:
- Creating new types of material from new sources – alternative materials.
- Enabling better manufacturing processes.
- Enabling new ways to recycle textiles at their end of life.
The materials market is already attracting investment capital. The Materials Innovation Initiative (MII), estimates that more than almost USD 1.3 billion has been invested just in next generation materials alone since 2015, with more than USD 500 million of this in 2020[xi] – see Figure 2.
Figure 2: Alternative protein costs are reaching cost parity. Source: MII
Microbes to produce new materials
The ideal new material is sustainably made and biodegradable, but does it exist? Novel materials are seen as a big part of a shift to a more sustainable or circular system in fashion. This category has seen a rise of new companies, attracting over USD 1.3 billion of capital since 2015. Like the alternative protein space, we are seeing plant, cell and fermentation-based alternatives all making up the “next-gen” materials market. In their recent “State of the Industry Report: Next Gen Materials” MII forecasts that the next-gen material wholesale market will grow from USD 65 million in 2020 to USD 2.2 billion by 2026, a CAGR of 80%.
While many of these companies are focused on replacing animal-based materials such as leather (driven by the environmental impact, as well as public health and animal welfare), it is likely that these technologies could be used to replace many textiles materials we use today.
Microbes are a large part of this novel space. Companies like Spiber are programming microbes to make spider silk protein and then using it in textiles. In 2018, they famously partnered with North Face to make a “Moon Parka”.[xii] Other companies, like Geltor, have made collagen protein (the core protein found in skin and therefore leather) and then turned it into leather – they famously used a jellyfish-based collagen to create a lab-grown leather book cover.[xiii]
Geltor have been mainly focusing on the high value cosmetics markets, but have recently moved into food, with the recent announcement of the first of its kind vegan collagen ingredient – PrimaColl™.[xiv]
Meanwhile, VitroLabs are using cell-based techniques to replicate the hide of a cow (or any animal). Producing this biochemically identical hide can be done in laboratories anywhere in weeks as opposed to years[xv] and, crucially, produces hides of a high quality (Grade A – only a few percent of cow hides are graded the top level of A[xvi] which most luxury brands require for their leather goods). This technology could be a gamechanger for the leather industry if the costs come down; it is likely to be better than current leather options.
Meanwhile, Bolt Threads has developed Mylo™ using mycelium – or fungus – technology. They have created The Mylo Consortium along with partners Kering, Lululemon, adidas and Stella McCartney. They have committed to invest in meaningful material innovation with Mylo™. Earlier this year, Hermès partnered with MycoWorks, another mycelium leather producer, to use their Fine Mycelium™ in the Victoria bag.[xvii] Companies are falling over themselves to introduce these sustainable alternatives. BMW iVentures, the venture capital arm of BWM Group, announced this month that they have invested in the sustainable materials company Natural Fiber Welding, whose product Mirum™ ‘performs on-par’ with animal-based leather, yet sidesteps the downfalls of other leather types.[xviii] This will be a continuing trend as companies continue to seek more sustainable alternatives – see Table 1.
Table 1: Investments in the Materials Space. Source: Crunchbase, Planet Tracker
Microbes to improve materials processing
Most of the environmental impact for materials and textiles production comes from the manufacture and processing part of production. For textiles, we know that wet processing is one of the most energy, water and chemicals intensive areas of production. Please see Planet Tracker’s report ‘Threadbare Data’ for further details. Many “next-gen” materials also often require some of the same processing steps as traditional materials. However, the introduction of microbes is changing how we process traditional and “next-gen” materials alike, as well as changing how we can produce the chemicals required.
Modern Meadow is one company producing next generation materials and building those materials from the protein up. To express colour, they dye their proteins in a liquid state, where the dyes chemically bind to the protein building blocks. This allows them to use only the precise amount of dye needed, eliminating any dye runoff,[xix] reducing dye leaching and wastewater output. Meanwhile, Colorifix is pioneering the first entirely biological process to produce, deposit and fix pigments onto textiles, cutting out the use of harsh chemistry and leading to huge reductions in water consumption. The microbial production of dye has not gone unnoticed. The Forbes Pigment Collection – a repository of some of the rarest and culturally significant pigments employed by artists across the world since 1,000 BC – recently had a new addition to the library in the form of a set of instructions for creating colour from micorganisms,[xx] showing just how important technology will be.[xxi]
Microbes to break down old materials
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the US generated over 17 million tons of textiles waste in 2018, of which only about 15% was recycled.[xxii] The rest is either incinerated or, for the most part, ends up in landfill. This textile waste is predominantly made up of synthetic fibres or plastics, like polyester, and the properties that make it so useful in textiles are the same ones that make it so resistant to biodegradation. Polyester- based textiles can take centuries to decompose naturally, compared to cotton-based textiles which can decompose in weeks or days.[xxiii]
Incredibly microbes have been found or engineered that can use the carbon central to all plastics as their food source – they can effectively “eat” plastics and turn the carbon into other molecules – albeit slowly and with specific focus. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have engineered a microbe, a bacterium, that turns PET into vanillin – that is used in flavors and fragrances.[xxiv] While other scientists discovered another microbe, a fungus, that uses plastic as its food source to make more fungi that could then be made into biomaterials, food or animal feed.[xxv]
In addition to this, decomposition is a chemical process and as such has the potential to be accelerated by a catalyst. Most biochemical reactions in nature are sped up by enzymes. The decomposition of plastic waste is no different. Scientists have discovered enzymes that can break down plastic waste in variety of places, including in the stomachs of cows.[xxvi]
It is worth noting that these technologies are relatively new and we have not yet seen many commercial companies being launched, but with huge focus on plastic waste and with the potential to be cheaper than current technologies used to recycle plastics, we expect more interest in the next few years.
The rippling consequences
As mentioned, both alternative food technology and next generation materials are seeing significant investment. Both rely on similar technologies centered around synthetic biology. As such, research on both is likely to cross over and even produce surprising results in terms of a novel material or important protein for food.
In turn, we expect disruptive effects for both the food and textiles industries. Currently, for example, the hide is a co-product of beef farming and is the second most profitable part of a cattle carcass,[xxvii] despite being worth only about 5% of the total value of a cow. If cows are indeed “disrupted” and fall in number significantly, this will have an impact on the materials industry, not only in the number of hides available, but their price. This in turn makes the market entry point for next gen materials easier and drives further investment into alternative materials – a virtuous circle.[xxviii] Conversely, a sharp fall in the cost of next-gen leather would depress the value of real leather, impacting the profitability of cattle-rearing and potentially reducing beef supplies (and/or raising costs) for the food industry.
Over the last few decades, the wool industry has seen significant declines, likely from the rise in cheap and less volatile synthetics.[xxix] A disruption to the lamb and mutton industry from next-gen foods could be the nail in the coffin for wool farming as we know it, which could mean an even greater impact on the lamb and mutton meat industry.
What does remain to be seen is how these next generation materials can fit into a circular economy. Are they really the answer? Can they drive down plastic pollution? Do the environmental impacts of production lessen from these next gen materials? How do they impact worker rights? These are the all-important questions we need this nascent industry to answer.
[i] The author previously worked at RethinkX, an independent think tank looking at the speed and scale of technology driven disruption, where she co-authored the report Rethinking Food & Agriculture 2020-2030, The Second Domestication of Plants and Animals, the Disruption of the Cow, and the Collapse of Industrial Livestock Farming.
[iii] Valuation of $8Bn based on a share price of $131/share as of July 21st 2021, up from its IPO at $25/share.
[iv] Valuation of $11Bn based on a share price of $19/share as of July 21st 2021, up from its IPO at $17/share.
[vi] Moore’s Law states that we can expect the speed and capability of our computers to increase every two years, and we will pay less for them. It is often used as an example of how technology can improve at an exponential rate with an exponential decrease in cost.
[xxviii] We discuss the idea of virtuous and vicious circles of disruption in: Rethinking Food & Agriculture 2020-2030, The Second Domestication of Plants and Animals, the Disruption of the
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