Check Out the Japanese Spider-Silk Startup Behind North Face’s $1,300 Parka

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Now, a Japanese startup, Spiber, explores how spider webs could transform the textile industry. The biotech company started by making a replica of spider silk in the lab and has since expanded its fabric line to include more sustainable alternatives to wool, cashmere and denim, says Kenji Higashi, business development manager at Spiber.

The company’s patented fiber, Brewed Protein, has been used in limited-edition collections with brands including Japanese streetwear label Sacai and outdoor clothing specialists The North Face Japan.

Currently ramping up production and preparing for a full commercial launch of its textiles, Spiber hopes its technology will help “solve some of the big global challenges we face,” says Higashi.

Spiders create webs by turning liquid proteins into silk. Although silkworms have been bred to produce silk for thousands of years, spiders are cannibals, which makes them impossible to farm.

That’s why friends Kazuhide Sekiyama and Junichi Sugahara, the founders of Spiber, decided to create a synthetic material molecularly identical to spider silk. The duo started experimenting as students at Keio University in Yamagata Prefecture in 2004 and founded the company in 2007.

Spiber has studied “thousands of different spider species,” as well as other silk-producing species, and compiled a database of silk varieties, Higashi says.

After successfully producing the alternative to spider silk, the team then developed a range of Brewed Protein fabrics by altering the protein sequence, Higashi explains.

Spiber fibers are made by fermenting water, sugar and nutrients with specially modified microbes in steel tanks, similar to those used in beer making, to produce protein polymers. The polymers are introduced through a nozzle and spun into a fiber, Higashi explains.

It has not been an easy journey, however. In 2015, Spiber partnered with The North Face Japan to produce a limited run of 50 “Moon Parka” jackets to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landings.

But during the design process, the team discovered that spider silk shrinks when wet, and had to modify the protein to make the fiber suitable for an outdoor jacket.

It took four years “to produce a garment that met their standards,” says Higashi. The parkas were selling for ¥150,000 (worth about $1,400 in 2019) and the small collection was sold out.

A recycling revolution

Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world. It produces about 2.1 billion metric tons of CO2 every year, according to management consultants McKinsey & Company. About 70% of this comes from production, and the manufacture of textiles uses large amounts of raw materials and water.
Spiber uses robotics in its factory to help produce its spider silk-inspired fiber.

According to Higashi, Spiber’s biodegradable textiles are expected to generate only a fifth of the carbon emissions of animal fibers once they are in full-scale production, according to a life cycle analysis conducted by the company.

However, Spiber still wants to reduce its impact on the environment. The company currently uses sugarcane and corn for its fermentation process — crops that use large volumes of land and divert food resources, Higashi says.

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To solve this problem, Spiber is developing a process called “biosphere circulation” that will convert discarded clothes made from natural materials like cotton into the sugars needed for fermentation.

About 40 million metric tons of textile waste is produced each year, and most of it goes to landfills or incinerators: keeping those textiles in the loop could create a more sustainable alternative, Higashi says.

Global expansion

Spiber isn’t the only company taking inspiration from arachnids. In 2016, Adidas incorporated AMSilk’s Biosteel fiber into a sneaker, and in 2017 Californian textile innovator Bolt Threads unveiled its spider silk-inspired yarn, Microsilk, in a gold dress designed by Stella McCartney.
In addition to its collaborations with The North Face Japan, Spiber’s Brewed Protein has been used by Japanese designer Yuima Nakazato for several of its collections, and streetwear brand Sacai for a range of limited edition t-shirts. Higashi says Spiber is also exploring opportunities in the automotive industry.
In 2021, fashion designer Yuima Nakazato presented a collection at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week that featured a blue, shiny textile made from brewed protein fibers and silk.
According to the company, Spiber has raised about 100 billion yen ($783 million) from investors including financial firms Carlyle and Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities, as well as grants from government organizations and startup development funds. .
This funding will allow the company to expand beyond its pilot plant in Yamagata – opening a small plant in Thailand later this year, and a larger facility in the United States next year as part of partnership with multinational food processor Archer Daniels Midland Company. Higashi says this will enable the production of thousands of tons of brewed protein by the end of 2023.

Higashi says the scale will help bring down the price of brewed protein and allow Spiber to expand beyond the high-end designer market.

“We have the means to create solutions to enable more circular fashion,” says Higashi. “It’s our mission to bring these solutions to the world.”

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