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Making spider silk without the spiders: Interview with Jamie Bainbridge, Vice President of Product Development at Bolt Threads

With eleven years as innovation director at Nike, Jamie Bainbridge combines a passion for sustainability and innovation with a strong sense of aesthetics.

7th July 2015

Innovation in Textiles
 |  Emeryville, CA

Sustainable, Clothing/​Footwear

Talking Heads is a brand new column, which features interviews with the industry’s movers and shakers. In this Talking Heads Debra Cobb interviews Jamie Bainbridge, Vice President of Product Development at Bolt Threads.

Jamie Bainbridge, Vice President of Product Development at Bolt Threads.© Bolt ThreadsBolt Threads was founded in Emeryville, California some five years ago by three PhDs who were obsessed by the idea of “making spider’s silk without the spiders.” Last month, the bio-engineering start-up was catapulted out of the R&D phase and into the real world of textile manufacturing with series B funding from Foundation Capital, Founders Fund, and Formation 8, bringing Bolt’s funding to US$40m.

To meet the challenge of bringing a new textile fibre to market, Bolt Threads has hired textile innovation specialist Jamie Bainbridge as VP for product development.

With eleven years as innovation director at Nike, and over eight years at eco-luxe apparel brand Nau, Jamie combines a passion for sustainability and innovation with a strong sense of aesthetics in textile development. Jamie spoke with us by phone.

What drew you to Bolt Threads? Why spider silk?

JB: Two reasons. One is that the protein we are making, and the process of mimicking the protein that spiders use to make silk, offers a technology that can be modified to create any performance aspect we want. We know that spiders produce six completely separate types of silk to do different jobs in spinning their webs. One of these proteins is extremely strong; another is stretchy to let themselves down. The silk that catches and entraps insects is sticky, and they have a soft one used to line their egg sacs. When you think about one protein that we can replicate with slight modifications to its sequence, that’s incredibly exciting.

So that was one piece of it. The other piece is that I feel like a lot of the paths we’re going down in sustainability in textiles right now are making progress, but they are very small steps, such as changing out C8 chemistry for C6 chemistry in DWR. Look at the potential of our fibre and the process used to make it: water, sugar, and yeast are the basic building blocks. And that is a completely renewable, sustainable process: fermentation, just like you’d make beer. To me that is over and above the idea of recycled synthetics and other eco processes. All the processes have drawbacks to them. This fibre, to me, offers a whole new avenue in terms of the resource-constrained world we all know we’re living in.

Bringing a new fibre to market is a huge challenge. The last attempt to combine sugar, yeast, and water to create a fibre for the apparel market was Ingeo, and that didn’t end well in apparel. How is Bolt Threads different—and why will it succeed in the apparel arena?

JB: I think Ingeo was a very interesting case study—Nau was one of the first to work with it—and I’m really glad I had that experience—because it stays top of mind when we are making things here. We (Nau) went to NatureWorks because we wanted to use their fibre. We got the dyeing under control, and made a lot of product. But it wasn’t ready to go, and there were other issues. So we just ran away from it. The moment we did, Ingeo dropped their support for the fibre market.  Had they stayed with it, they would’ve solved it; but they just weren’t ready. They got tempted by the films and packaging market, which is so big and so easy in comparison to fibres.

I got to experience what happens when you drop the ball, and don’t hold your customers’ hands during the development process. That was a good lesson. Bolt Threads is very focused on the apparel fibres market, and won’t be side-tracked. Our funders have long-term patience, and are willing to learn about what it takes to be in the apparel market.

According to your website, you are currently working with a yarn spinner in Yadkinville, North Carolina. Would that be Unifi?

JB: Yes, we are working with Unifi, they are yarn manufacturers for Bolt Threads in North Carolina. 

One of the things about Bolt Threads is that they’re very committed to keeping manufacturing in the United States. I’m calling on my whole Rolodex of contacts in the US to bring the best and the brightest to bear on this.

During your tenure at Nau, you developed fabrics that were aesthetically beautiful as well as sustainable. Will this be your goal for Bolt Threads, or will you focus more on technical and performance aspects of the fibre?

JB: Thank you. I’m approaching this fibre differently than I would the current fibres available on the market, and I’ll tell you why. I think we will be able to engineer in a lot of the performance into the fibre itself, not as a finish to the fabric. We will not have to add a lot of chemistry to the fabric if the fibre lives up to what we think it will.

At Bolt Threads, researchers are developing new technology to replicate the amazing spider silk production process sustainably on a very large scale. © Bolt Threads

For example, imagine if someone comes to us wanting to make body wear from our fibre. We put our stretchiest, most hydrophilic fibre together with our stretchiest, most hydrophobic fibre and get a double knit, push-pull fabric without using any wicking chemistry. That’s my approach to what we’re going to do.

Are you looking to make end fabrics that are made of 100% Bolt Threads fibre? Or do you see your fibre blending with other fibres?

JB: We’re open to both. To tell you the truth, we’re at a point where we understand how the fibre behaves, the fundamentals. But I can’t tell you how it’s going to spin in a commercial setting yet. When it comes to that, if it needs or would benefit from the addition of another fibre, we will. And we will play with both spun and filament.

Will fabrics made from Bolt Threads fibre have a specific hand feel or set of properties?

JB: We don’t know yet. We understand the aesthetics of silkworm silk, spider silk, and protein fibres, but we don’t yet know where we’re going to land amongst these characteristics. As a pure protein fibre, it should have a lot of the aesthetic characteristics of natural silk fibres.

Will spider silk polymers be potential material for 3D printed garments/apparel?

JB: I’m very excited with what I’m seeing in 3D. If you think about spider silk spinning in relation to the spinnerets used for synthetic fibres used in 3D printing, I don’t see any theoretical reason why we couldn’t do it. I’m really interested. This leads me into another point for you.

I’m looking at all of the innovation out there right now in the textile construction and finishing field. What I’m hoping articles like this will do is bring people with those innovations to us. I want a phone call from someone from the 3D printing world that says, ‘Hey, could you partner with us?’ Help us with seeing what’s going on out there that I haven’t turned over a stone on yet.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JB: Those are the basic points I’d like to get across. The corporate culture at Bolt Threads is one I haven’t seen in another company. It’s an incredibly curious culture of learning. We’re always bringing in people to give talks on scientific subjects that relate—or maybe don’t relate to what we’re doing. There’s just a huge culture of learning that is fascinating to be a part of. I’m bringing in a guy in the next few weeks to talk about ocean micro-plastics. Our products will have the ability to biodegrade in ocean water, which could solve some of the problems currently being made public regarding micro-plastic in the ocean.

I’m excited to be working in this country (the US) to get this going. Right now there’s a tiny piece of momentum going out there; let’s put something behind it to back it up in terms of textiles. You’d better be out there and be curious, because it’s not going to come knocking at your door.

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