Meet the Japanese Spider Silk startup behind the ফেস 1,300 Parker in North Face

Now, A Japanese startup, Spyber, is exploring how spider webs can transform the textile industry. The biotech company has started making spider silk replicas 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 Spyber.

Used in a limited edition collection of brands including the company’s trademarked fiber, brewed protein, Japanese streetwear label Sakai and outdoor apparel specialist The North Face Japan.

Now that production is growing and preparing for the full commercial launch of its textiles, Spyber hopes its technology will help solve some of the biggest global challenges we face, “Higashi said.

Spiders make webs by twisting liquid proteins into silk. Although silkworms have been bred for silk production for thousands of years, spiders are man-eaters which makes them impossible to cultivate.

This is why friends Kazuhide Sekiyama and Junichi Sugahara, the founders of Spyber, decided to create a synthetic material that is molecularly like spider silk. The pair began studying as students at Keiu University in Yamagata Prefecture in 2004 and founded the company in 2007.

Spyber has studied “thousands of different spider species,” as well as a database of other silk-producing species, and silk species, Higashi said.

Brewed protein polymer powder is fermented with water, sugar and specially designed germs.  After refining, this powder can be processed into a variety of fabrics, such as leather, silk or cut yarn.

After successfully creating an alternative to spider silk, the team went on to create a range of brewed protein fabrics by changing the protein sequence, Higashi says.

Spiber fibers are made by fermenting water, sugar, and nutrients with specially modified germs in steel tanks used to make beer to make protein polymers. The polymers are fed through a nozzle and turned into a fiber, says Higashi.

Although it was not an easy journey. In 2015, Spyber partnered with The North Face Japan to create a limited edition of 50 “Moon Parka” jackets to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

But during the design process, the team discovered that spider silk shrinks when wet and had to change proteins to make the fiber suitable for outer jackets.

“It took four years to make a garment that meets their standards,” Higashi said. Parkas has retailed ¥ 150,000 (worth about $ 1,400 in 2019) and small collections have sold out.

A reusable revolution

One of the most polluting industries in the fashion world. It produces about 2.1 billion metric tons of CO2 per year, according to management consultant McKinsey & Company. About 70% of it comes from manufacturing and a lot of raw materials and water are used to make textiles.
Spyber uses robotics to help produce spider silk-inspired fibers in its factory.

Higashi says Spyber’s biodegradable textiles are projected to generate only one-fifth of the carbon emissions of animal-based fibers when they are in full-scale production, according to a lifecycle analysis conducted by the company.

Although Spyber wants to further reduce its environmental impact. The company currently uses sugarcane and maize for its fermentation process – grains that use up a lot of land and remove food resources, says Higashi.

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To address this, Spyber is developing a process called “biosphere circulation” that will convert discarded clothing made from natural ingredients, such as cotton, into the sugars needed to ferment.

About 40 million metric tons of textile waste is generated each year, and most of it goes to landfills or incinerators: putting these textiles in a loop could create a more sustainable alternative, Higashi said.

Global expansion

Spyber is not the only company that draws inspiration from Arachnids. In 2016, Adidas incorporated AMSilk’s biosteel fibers into a sneaker, and in 2017, California spun-silk-inspired thread, Microsilk Unmo, into a gold garment designed by Bolt Threads Stella McCartney, a California textile inventor.
In addition to collaborating with The North Face Japan, Spyber’s Brewed Protein has been used by Japanese designer Yuima Nakajato for several of her collections and for a limited edition T-shirt range, the streetwear brand Sakai. Higashi says Spyber is also exploring opportunities in the automotive industry.
In 2021, fashion designer Yuima Nakazato presented a collection at Paris Fashion Week Haute Couture featuring a blue, glossy textile made from Brewed protein fiber and silk.
According to the company, Spyber has raised nearly ¥ 100 billion ($ 783 million) from investors, including financial companies Carlyle and Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities, with grants from government agencies and startup development funds.
The funding will allow the company to expand beyond its pilot plant in Yamagata – opening a small plant in Thailand later this year and partnering with food processing multinational Archer Daniels Midland Company in the United States next year. Higashi says it will be able to produce thousands of tons of brewed protein by the end of 2023.

Higashi says scaling will help reduce the price of brewed protein and allow Spyber to expand beyond the high-end designer market.

“We have ways to create solutions to enable more round fashion,” said Higashi “Our goal is to bring these solutions to the world.”

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