A new era of innovation is taking hold of the outdoor recreation world. It’s happening in high-tech innovation centers in Silicon Valley, in small ski design workshops in Salt Lake City, and in high-tech biology labs in Berkeley.
Its unlikely little hero: microalgae.
Today, Berkeley-based biotech startup Checkerspot announced a partnership with Gore — the makers of Gore-Tex — to use synthetic biology to supercharge Gore’s ability to produce a new generation of high-performance materials and outdoor products.
Checkerspot has a proprietary platform that uses microalgae — one of the earth’s most primitive oil-producing organisms — as a tiny biological factory for the production of oil. It was just this April that Checkerspot raised a $13 million Series A to develop this platform to produce synthetic biology-enabled performance materials.
Gore has decades of experience in making high-performance apparel. In 1976, Gore began producing Gore-Tex, the world’s first breathable, waterproof, and windproof fabric. The company discovered ePTFE — expanded polytetrafluoroethylene — an incredibly strong material that is 70% air. It has a long list of properties that make materials scientists drool, like low water adsorption and good weathering properties.
The Gore Innovation Center in Silicon Valley is one place where big manufacturers are looking to biotechnology for ways of making products that are not only better, but also better for the environment. Photo: Gore Innovation Center.
Together, Gore and Checkerspot will explore innovative performance materials development with the goal of delivering high-performance textile coatings with improved environmental profiles.
What nature has given us
Over the millennia, plants have evolved a menu of oils and fats that they use to do things like store energy, make fragrance, give structure, or provide protection. Humans have learned to harvest these substances from plants and use them in many different ways.
This was fine when we were small bands of hunters and gatherers. On an industrial scale, though, humans have had to learn how to mass-produce what nature has given us in small amounts. Until recently, humans have been limited to about five oils that make up the majority of plant oils: rapeseed (canola), sunflower, corn, soybean, and palm.
Then along comes synthetic biology
Synthetic biology is changing all that. If you’re new to my column, synthetic biology is a booming industry that’s changing the way we make food, clothes, personal products, and even how we design cities.
With synthetic biology, you can start microalgae that naturally produce oil, then change the genes within the algae to create new chemical pathways within it. Using the algae as a kind of “chassis” for biological manufacturing, you can make more of what the algae naturally makes. Even better, you can make oils that nature hasn’t evolved on its own, with performance properties that improve upon nature’s designs.
Checkerspot CEO Charles Dimmler shares his technology — and his love of nature — with the SynBioBeta 2019 audience in San Francisco.
From an evolutionary perspective, algae evolved to produce oil as a matter of survival. Checkerspot takes advantage of this by growing its algae in fermentation — the same process used to make beer or kimchi. Within days the algae accumulate large amounts of a custom-specified oil within their cells.
In other words, Checkerspot has built a high-throughput production platform that takes sugar and uses algae to turn it into high-value, customized chemicals.
The result: Checkerspot is among the synthetic biology innovators who are expanding nature’s molecular palette to include new materials with incredible new properties. Not just that, but they’re showing us a whole new way to do manufacturing.
A passion for nature meets a passion for technology
Checkerspot’s own DNA is rooted not just in synthetic biology, but in doing good by the environment. The company takes its name from the Bay checkerspot butterfly, an endangered species that lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. The company posts its sustainability metrics for all to see and to inspire other companies to commit to reducing their environmental impacts, and Checkerspot CEO Charlie Dimmler himself remains active as a leader for the Bay Area Mountain Rescue Team.
In an ultimate demonstration of both the company’s love of the outdoors and the strength of its technology, Checkerspot successfully used its microalgae platform to launch the WNDR Alpine brand, and brought to market a first-of-its-kind backcountry ski made with a completely new material derived from algal oil that has better performance characteristics compared to its petroleum counterpart.
Pep Fujas, member of the Checkerspot design team, in Checkerspot’s Salt Lake City ski design lab. WNDR – Carson Meyer
The future of manufacturing is biology
Our ability to read and write DNA has accelerated exponentially over the past 20 years. We’ve now sequenced hundred of millions of plants and animals. Checkerspot’s platform is just one example of how synthetic biology takes advantage of this data and turns it into the know-how to make products — inspired by nature — that have just the right performance properties.
Checkerspot is partnering with lots of different companies to explore how algae can make better product materials that are also better for the environment. If you ask me, Checkerspot will win in the marketplace because the properties of their oils just make for a better product for the same price. The fact that it’s more sustainable, well, that’s just frosting on the cake.
That’s what makes Checkerspot’s technology attractive to companies like Gore, and what makes synthetic biology such a game-changer.
Acknowledgment: Thank you to Kevin Costa for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about — including Checkerspot — are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference (click here for a full list of sponsors).
Originally published on Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/johncumbers/2019/11/19/gore-tex-is-betting-big-on-synthetic-biology/2