Meet the Japanese spider silk startup that designed the $1,300 North Face Park.

Now, one Japanese startup, spiberstudies how the web can change the textile industry. The biotech company began by making a replica of spider silk in the lab and has since expanded its fabric range to include more sustainable alternatives to wool, cashmere and denim, says Kenji Higashi, head of business development at Spiber.

The fiber under the company’s trademark, Brewed Protein, has been used in limited edition collections by brands such as Japanese streetwear label Sacai and outdoor clothing specialist The North Face Japan.

Now expanding production and preparing for the full commercial launch of its textiles, Spiber hopes its technology will help “solve some of the major global challenges we face,” says Higashi.

Spiders create webs by turning liquid protein into silk. Although silkworms have been bred for silk production for thousands of years, cannibal spiders which makes them impossible to grow.

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

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

Having successfully made an alternative to spider silk, Higashi said, the team set about developing a range of fabrics from boiled protein by resequencing the proteins.

Spiber fibers are made by fermenting water, sugar and nutrients with specially modified microbes in steel tanks like those used in brewing to produce protein polymers. According to Higashi, the polymers are fed through a nozzle and spun into fiber.

However, this was not an easy journey. In 2015, Spiber partnered with The North Face Japan to release a limited edition 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 they had to modify the protein to make the fiber suitable for an outdoor jacket.

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

Recycling revolution

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

Higashi says that according to the company’s life cycle analysis, Spiber’s biodegradable textiles are predicted to generate only a fifth of the carbon emissions compared to animal fibers when they are put into full-scale production.

However, Spiber wants to further reduce its environmental impact. The company currently uses sugarcane and corn for the fermentation process, crops that require large amounts of land and divert food resources, says Higashi.

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

Around 40 million metric tons of textile waste produced every year, and much of it goes to landfills or incinerators: keeping these textiles in the cycle could create a more sustainable alternative, Higashi says.

global expansion

Spiber isn’t the only company drawing inspiration from arachnids. In 2016, Adidas included Biosteel fiber from AMSilk in sneakers and in 2017, Californian textile innovator Bolt Threads introduced its microsilk thread inspired by spider silk. golden dress design by Stella McCartney.
In addition to collaborating with The North Face Japan, Spiber Brewing Protein was used by a Japanese designer. Yuima Nakazato for several of his collections and a streetwear brand Sakai for a limited collection of t-shirts. Higashi says Spiber is also exploring opportunities in the automotive industry.
In 2021, fashion designer Yuima Nakazato showcased a collection at Paris Haute Couture Week that featured Brewed Protein, a blue lustrous fiber and silk fabric.
According to the company, Spiber has collected about 100 billion yen ($783 million) from investors including financial firms Carlyle and Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities, as well as grants from government agencies and startup development funds.
The funding will allow the company to expand beyond its pilot plant in Yamagata to open a small plant in Thailand later this year and a larger plant in the US next year. partnership with multinational food company Archer Daniels Midland Company. Higashi says this will enable the production of thousands of tons of cooked protein by the end of 2023.

Higashi says the scaling will help drive down the price of Brewed Protein and allow Spiber to expand beyond the high-end designer market.

“We have the means to create solutions that enable more circular fashion,” says Higashi. “Our mission is to bring these solutions to the world.”

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