Saturday, Jul 2, 2022
Industry & Trade | Asia-Pacific | Japan

Spiber Inc.

Brewed Protein: Expanding the range of sustainable materials


10 months ago

Kazuhide Sekiyama, Director and Representative Director of Spiber Inc.
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Kazuhide Sekiyama

Director and Representative Director of Spiber Inc.

With development grounded in close observation of the natural world, Spiber’s Brewed Protein™ materials are produced through a fermentation process that utilizes sugars and microbes, rather than petrochemical or animal-derived raw materials. With their potential for mainstay industrial use, Spiber believes that Brewed Protein™ materials represent a compelling contribution towards our shared endeavor to create a more sustainable future for humanity and nature, both now and for generations to come. We speak with Kazuhide Sekiyama, Spiber Director and Representative Director, to learn more about the innovation being carried out by this fascinating company and the endless potential of Brewed Protein™.

Since World War II, Japan has emerged as a powerhouse when it comes to manufacturing internationally and has garnered an excellent reputation for its ability to produce quality products with extreme attention to detail, also known as monozukuri. In textiles, companies such as Marusan have been able to develop materials such as the Miracle Cotton, which is excellent for face masks as it absorbs water and moisture. We see that retailers like Uniqlo have invented Heattech, a fabric which generates heat. Can you tell us what is it about the Japanese monozukuri processes that allows Japanese companies to invent such sought-after unique materials?


Product resulting from joint research and development with GOLDWIN Inc. The MOON PARKA is the world's first outerwear jacket to utilize structural protein materials. (Source: Spiber Inc.)

*MOON PARKA is a trademark of Spiber Inc. and GOLDWIN INC.


The departure point is indeed the customer’s perception and their expectations of high-quality products. People all over Japan are very keen on precise technologies and high-quality production methods; essentially, their expectations are as high as possible. Accordingly, Japanese companies, including Spiber, aim to match these expectations and do everything possible to satisfy the needs of the customers. The goal of developing better quality and more reliable products explain what monozukuri is about and what sort of products we can expect it to create. At Spiber, we adhere closely to these principles ourselves, because we are dealing with well-known names in the apparel industry, such as the outdoor apparel companies Goldwin and The North Face. Working with outdoor wear requires high levels of precision and adherence to standards in order to guarantee that end products match customer expectations. The experiences we’ve had in this industry so far have taught us a lot about the product development and release process, especially in terms of analysing the mechanical properties of different materials and working to deliver ever-higher levels of performance. Moving forward, we intend to keep raising our customers’ expectations while pushing the envelope in terms of delivering high-quality materials and products.

Two months ago, the Japanese government announced that Japan aims to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, an initiative that will involve heavy investment in green technologies and energy. Spiber has created a unique proprietary fermentation process to produce Brewed Protein™ polymer, a protein material that can be used in many industrial applications. Can you tell us more about Brewed Protein™ materials’ advantages over conventional materials?


Source: Spiber Inc.


Brewed Protein™ materials serve as a solution for contributing to environmental issues. We want to be one of the companies that contributes to Japan’s initiatives towards becoming that kind of society. Brewed Protein™ polymer is a natural compound produced through a fermentation process that utilises sugars and microbes, rather than petrochemical- or animal-derived raw materials. Thus, we believe it demonstrates a compelling potential to contribute to building a sustainable society. We have created a dedicated sustainability team and begun numerous initiatives to build a socially and environmentally responsible material production process and supply chain. Moreover, our materials promote the replacement of and non-reliance on the use of petrochemicals as primary feedstock. Recently, microplastics resulting from traditional plastic materials such as polyester and nylon have been gaining attention because of their potential to damage marine ecosystems and have a negative impact on human health. Research into the effect of microplastics is still ongoing, but in the meantime we are hoping to replace their use with Brewed Protein™ materials, which have shown biodegradability in various conditions including marine environments (e.g. unfinished Brewed Protein™ fibers showed over 70% biodegradability in marine environments within 30 days in accordance with ASTM D6691 using OxiTopsystem). Our main feedstock is sugars, which can be obtained from different kinds of raw materials. For example, we currently source sucrose from sugarcane in Thailand (one of the largest producers of sugarcane in the world) and dextrose from corn, which is grown on a large scale in the United States. Ultimately, we are planning to shift to using non-edible agricultural products or waste such as bagasse, the dry pulpy fibrous material that remains after crushing sugarcane. 

Brewed Protein™ polymer is highly versatile. It can be used to make materials that are as soft as cashmere and have the moisture-retention properties of wool, but it can also be processed into leather-like materials as well. Brewed Protein™ materials also have potential applications in the medical, industrial, and automotive industries, to name a few. What sector are you primarily targeting at this point in time, and what future applications do you see your materials being used in?


Brewed Protein™ filament (Source: Spiber Inc.)


Over the short-term we are primarily targeting apparel applications due to the capacity for Brewed Protein™ materials to serve as a replacement for conventional options like wool, cashmere, and silk, which still see heavy use within the textile industry. The feature that most interests many applicants in the apparel industry is the fact that our products are animal-free, which allows us to address many well-known ethical and environmental concerns. In general, animal-based fibers such as cashmere, wool, and silk are associated with high greenhouse gas emissions caused by the process of raising the animals used to create them. In cashmere production, for example, the total amount of fibers one goat can produce is extremely limited. This means that the process of making cashmere fibers is much more resource consuming and environmentally damaging than a more efficient biotech process. As we move towards our goal of procuring 100% renewable energy for Spiber’s Thailand and U.S. plants, we believe that Brewed Protein™ materials can serve as a compelling alternative to these sorts of materials. Another pressing recent environmental issue is the increasing desertification in regions such as Mongolia, where most of the world’s cashmere is produced. Soil erosion and desertification caused in part by overgrazing and mass breeding of cashmere goats are causing the expansion of the Gobi Desert. In summary, Spiber is pursuing environmentally conscious endeavours to contribute to the elimination of the problems I’ve just mentioned. Our focus, therefore, is not simply on the creation of a new type of industrial materials, but rather on contributing to society and raising awareness of important environmental issues. The Brewed Protein™ fibres for apparel applications are designed to replace wool, silk, leather, fur, or any other animal-based materials. These days, most apparel companies choose between plant-derived, animal-derived, or petrochemical-derived materials for their clothing. At present, petrochemical-based materials are the most common choice, which inevitably leads to the depletion of petrochemical resources and the release of microplastics into marine ecosystems. These microplastics do not degrade easily, and accordingly their contamination of marine and soil environments becomes an ongoing and long-lasting problem. Furthermore, additives applied to petrochemical fibers to create anti-odour, anti-bacterial, sanitary, or softening properties may affect the environment when leaked, for example, from home washing machines into rivers, lakes, or the ocean. We believe that our Brewed Protein™ materials represent a compelling solution to this problem, as they have demonstrated biodegradability in marine environments and are also plant-derived, which avoids the ethical and environmental concerns posed by the utilisation of animal-derived materials.

 

Brewed Protein™ polymer is unique because of its potential to completely replace wool, silk, and other conventional materials that are harmful to the environment. This is due not only to a lack of environmentally-destructive by-products arising from the use of Brewed Protein™ materials, but also to the specifics of the production processes used in their manufacturing. Still, many Japanese companies have previously succeeded in developing unique technologies, but they often fail to convey the competitive advantages of their products to a wider international audience. What strategies have you adopted in order to showcase the competitive advantages of your Brewed Protein™ materials?

Rather than focusing heavily on sales and marketing activities, Spiber prefers to let our product speak for itself. As discussed earlier, we believe Brewed Protein™ materials can greatly contribute to solving environmental issues by serving as a replacement for conventional options such as cotton or cashmere. Brewed Protein™ materials can also be processed into a variety of forms, ranging from delicate filament fibres with a silky sheen to spun yarns that boast features such as cashmere-like softness or the renowned thermal and moisture-wicking properties of wool. Brewed Protein™ polymer also has potential for use in automobile parts, medical applications, and so on. Given these factors, we receive many requests for material provision or collaboration on product development from various companies looking for alternatives to petrochemical-derived textiles, leathers, fur, automobile parts, cosmetics, and so on. Initially, we started working domestically on projects with companies such as Goldwin and The North Face. Since that time, Brewed Protein™ materials have steadily gained in popularity and we currently have numerous ongoing collaborations with international partners that are not limited to the apparel industry. We usually gain new customers by word of mouth, often from our existing customers and users.

We understand that Spiber is currently working hard to scale up Brewed Protein™ polymer production while also reducing prices in order to make your materials more cost competitive. You have recently partnered with ADM and DOS to establish a plant in Iowa, and this year you expect to begin operating a large factory in Rayong, Thailand, with the goal of producing hundreds of tonnes of Brewed Protein™ polymer per year. Could you tell us about your sales targets and which sectors you intend to focus on as part of your midterm strategy?


Structural protein mass production facility (left) with estimated several hundred tonne per year production capacity and an office (right), currently under construction in Rayong, Thailand. Operation of the plant is expected to begin in 2021. (Source: Spiber Inc.)


Well, our factory in Thailand is expected to produce several hundreds of tonnes of polymer per year, while our manufacturing plant in Iowa, in cooperation with ADM, is targeting an annual production scale of several thousands tonnes. Obviously, we plan to sell our materials to apparel-related companies over the short- to mid-term. As one example, we are currently collaborating with the famous wig maker Aderans to develop protein-based fibers that closely resemble natural hair. By working with such a high-profile company on the development of artificial hair, we hope that our materials can help resolve some of the humanitarian issues that have been identified in the wig industry, which utilizes between 8,000–10,000 tonnes of human hair every year. In addition to the opportunity to address important ethical issues such as these, the size of the apparel sector is another reason why we find it a compelling short- to medium-term target; our research has identified an annual global demand for approximately 10,000 tonnes of cashmere, 200,000 tonnes of silk, and 1,000,000 tonnes of silk, all of which are ideal market segments for us to target with our materials. We also intend to accelerate our R&D efforts for various industrial applications once we achieve greater production capacity.

Japan is famous for spending up to 3% of its annual GDP on research and development. As a company, Spiber is at the very forefront of scientific research when it comes to protein-based materials, in terms of not only technical knowledge but also the understanding of how to adapt these materials for specific applications. Could you tell us more about your R&D strategy?


Small-scale microbial fermentation equipment located in the laboratory at Spiber's headquarters (Source: Spiber Inc.)


The amazing versatility of Brewed Protein™ materials arises from the nearly limitless possible combinations of 20 amino acids, which in turn allows our product to offer a variety of features depending on the sort of applications we wish to target. The amino acid composition of a given protein and the positioning of the amino acids can be changed to create various features and functionality, such as odor resistance, flame retardancy, and many more, all without having to rely on chemical additives. In short, the number of potential variations and combinations are essentially limitless, and it’s safe to say that humanity has only discovered a tiny portion of all the possible amino acid combinations that might exist. Similarly, the Brewed Protein™ polymers we have created so far represent just a small part of the many discoveries our researchers anticipate making in the future. Moving forward, we expect to further unlock the potential of protein materials to make significant contributions to other fields such as the medical, industrial, or automotive industries.

The productivity of the microbes responsible for creating our proteins is another important factor. To that end, we devote a lot of our R&D resources towards engineering microbes to produce our proteins as efficiently as possible. This helps us reduce costs while delivering more effective and functional products, and it also helps us achieve our sustainability-related goals by reducing production-related energy usage and waste creation.

Fermentation is a well-known process. In Spiber’s case, you are using microorganisms to ferment Brewed Protein™ materials. Is this fermentation process itself patented, or is your IP more focused on the specific strain of microorganisms that you utilise?

The first step in our production process is determining the desired sequence of amino acids by referring to our database of DNA obtained from natural protein samples. We then genetically engineer a suitable strain of microorganisms which will facilitate the brewing (or fermentation) process. Finally, we purify our protein polymer by separating it from the fermentation residue. Spiber has numerous patents covering this process as a whole.

What’s more important than the fermentation technology itself, however, is the bioinformatics technology that underlies our capacity to design new microorganisms and amino acid sequences. Think of it as software with different components, such as DNA and amino acid sequences and various strains of microorganisms. Taken together, these components specify the base conditions for the fermentation process that creates our materials. This bioinformatics system serves as the infrastructure and foundation for our R&D initiatives. By repeatedly cycling through our design process, we are able to implement feedback and adjustments in order to optimize our production process or identify novel materials for use in new applications. So far, we have filed for approximately 500 variations of international patent applications to cover the whole production process of Brewed Protein™ materials.

Patents are crucial as they give us legal rights over our products. Brewed Protein™ fiber production is currently at a much smaller scale—something like 1:10,000—than that of nylon and polyester. Therefore, in order to increase long-term production capacity, we intend to form partnerships with companies in relevant industries such as fiber or chemical manufacturing. We are currently considering how best to share our knowledge and IP with these partners as we develop our technology further.

Once the production scale of Brewed Protein™ polymer reaches millions of tonnes per year, the returns created by increased revenue and decreased production costs brought about by even a 1% improvement to productivity would be enormous. Therefore, it is extremely important for us to improve production efficiency and ensure that we patent all the relevant technology involved in doing so.

As you look to become more profitable, the international aspect of your business will be crucial. Strategically, why did you choose your first two overseas locations, the US and Thailand? Moving forward, how will that benefit your international expansion?


A large-scale biorefinery plant in Iowa, USA owned by ADM. Work is underway to fit these facilities with the equipment necessary to produce Brewed Protein™ materials. Once completed, this plant will serve as Spiber's second overseas mass production facility, following on from the Thailand plant. While details regarding the scheduled start of plant operations have not yet been made public, current estimates place production capacity at approximately several thousand tonnes per year. (Source: Spiber Inc.)


The main point that we considered in our decision to build plants in Thailand and the U.S. is the degree of stable access to the biomass that our production process requires. Additionally, support provided by the governments of both countries—who positively evaluated the potential of our business initiatives—was another important factor in our decision. While we are primarily focusing on these two plants for now, we are also considering other locations for potential overseas expansion as our business continues to grow.

As the founder and president of the company, imagine we come back to interview you again in two years. What would you like to tell us? What are your dreams for the company, and what would you like to have accomplished by then?

Good question. We are now standing at one of the biggest turning points in our company’s history. Up until now, we have primarily focused on making progress with R&D initiatives and emphasising in-house development. From this point on, we’re advancing to the second stage of our business plan, which is establishing mass production in order to achieve product profitability. We are very much looking forward to seeing our materials in consumers’ hands at a global scale in the next few years.


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