June 9, 2015

Bolt Threads Raises $32.3M Series B to Scale up Engineered Silk Fabrics

CEO of Bolt Threads Dan Widmaier at SynBioBeta SF 2014. After six years of research, emerges from stealth mode to announce it is gearing up production of engineered silk fibers at a commercial scale. The fibers can be produced at a cost that makes it viable for widespread use in consumer products.

After launching the rebrand of Refactored Materials into the more consumer friendly name Bolt Threads at last year’s SynBioBeta SF, rising star Dan Widmaier, the CEO just announced the closing of a 32.3 million series B financing. The latest financing will put the company on the path to scale up of their engineered silk fibers, a novel biomaterial for customizable high performance fabrics.
“We started Bolt Threads based on our fascination with the properties of spider silk, particularly how to use the elegant solutions found in nature to create something even better”, said Dan Widmaier, CEO, Bolt Threads.

The $32.3M funding round was led by Formation 8 and Foundation Capital with participation from Founders Fund. The startup has also been supported by active angel investors Karl Handelsman from Codon Capital and Una Ryan from the Bay Area Bioeconomy Initiative. The company, which has raised a total of $40 million, will use the funds to increase production of sustainable fibers, grow its team of technology and apparel experts and commercialize its engineered silk technology.

Scientists have tried to mass-produce spider silk for decades with little success. As a naturally occurring supermaterial, spider silk is strong, extendible, lightweight, biodegradable, flexible, biocompatible, and can be processed into different formats, including 3D structures. Biological technologies are an alternative approach to produce large quantities of silk for commercial applications. Unlocking the secret to producing silk at large scale could change the clothing industry, as well as provide new biomaterials for construction and biomedical applications. The super strong material could also be used by the military for protective garments. It turns out that yeast fermentation can yield a much larger amount of the material as opposed to harvesting from the wild.

A true spin out from Chris Voigt’s lab

It’s been a long hard slog for the founders Dan Widmaier, David Breslauer and Ethan Mirsky to get where they are today. What began as an academic research project, literally spun out of Chris Voigt’s lab at UCSF and is one of the success stories of the QB3 incubator run by Douglas Crawford at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus. Bolt Threads recently moved out of Mission Bay and into a newly renovated facility across the bay in Emeryville, California.

How’s it done?

The team have studied silk proteins found in nature to determine what gives them their incredible properties such as strength, durability and elasticity. By inserting specific genes into yeast, they engineered proteins inspired by these natural silks. Through fermentation, Bolt Threads’ microorganisms have the potential to produce metric tons of silk proteins without spiders. Then, the liquid silk protein can be turned into fiber through wet-spinning, where the solution is squeezed through small extrusion holes and goes into a mixture of sugar, water and salt that turns the proteins into solid fibers. The fibers can then be knit or woven into fabrics and garments.

Why does the world need a new textile material?

Bolt Threads’ technology has important environmental benefits. More than 60% of textiles are made of polyester and other petroleum-derived fibers, and the textile industry is one of the most polluting on the planet in terms of dying, water pollution and chemical use. According to the World Bank, 20% of water pollution globally results from textile processing. In contrast, Bolt Threads’ engineered silk are made from protein, which represents a significant innovation in the textile industry. Dan Widmaier added:

Proteins are versatile and one of the most interesting things on the planet. The entire biosphere is built around protein, so we know we can make this cleaner in terms of water, land and chemicals usage. The team are engineers at heart, wanting to control and ultimately improve on the whole process from start to finish. We measure the inputs and outputs constantly so we can make improvements.

In addition to that, with the “programmable fibers”, the company can introduce specific characteristics it wants the fabric to exhibit. By modifying the genes inserted into yeast cells and tweaking the way it spins the secreted proteins into thread, Bolt can engineer fabrics to specified levels of strength, durability, and softness. For example, they can develop a material that holds onto color better or that’s more breathable, softer, more durable and holds up in standard washer and driers.

Bolt Threads

Bolt Threads’ fibers can produce fabrics with practical and revolutionary uses.

Bolt is currently working with the Michigan Biotechnology Institute which will do Bolt’s fermentation in large-scale 4,000-liter tanks, and Unifi, a manufacturing partner which will spin the silk fibers into textiles. In the next few months, Bolt Threads says it plans to partner with other textile manufacturing companies and explore creating its own line of consumer products. Bolt believes it will have its first products available by 2016.

Direct to consumer?

Bolt have two options for getting the fabric into people’s hands. The first is through a traditional sale or partnership model, the second is going directly to consumers. Under the stewardship of Sue Levin, former Global Director of Women’s Sports Marketing of Nike and founder of Lucy Activewear, Widmaier hopes that close contact with consumers of the end fabric will help him gain more insight into the product. “I hope it helps us improve on future generations of the product,” said Widmaier.

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