New fashion biotech firm Tinctorium and its co-founders Michelle Zhu and Tammy Hsu, are here to disrupt the industry with a new biologically synthesized indigo that avoids many of the harmful chemicals that have long plagued the industry—and they’re being backed by denim royalty to do it.
With a business plan in hand, things have moved fast for Tinctorium over the last four months. The firm recently completed Indiebio’s accelerator program, earning valuable connections and $250,000 in seed money. Then, Tinctorium caught the eye of the godfather of premium denim, Adriano Goldschmied.
Zhu and Hsu’s relationship started when the recently graduated Hsu met Zhu’s fiance in a class at UC-Berkely, where Hsu was finishing her Ph.D. studying biotechnology related to indigo synthesis. Fast friends, the two quickly realized their talents could be complementary as Zhu’s business acumen was all that was needed to take the technology from Hsu’s Ph.D. program and bring it to fashion companies worldwide.
From the beginning, Tinctorium set out to provide a solution to two of synthetic indigo’s most poignant problems: the petroleum base that must be used to create it and the toxic chemicals that are required to introduce it into fabric.
“The way that we’re resolving these problems is that we are using a biological process to produce the indigo,” Zhu told Rivet. “So, instead of needing the petroleum base for it, we can literally program bacteria, microbes to grow and secrete the indigo without the need for toxic chemicals.”
After a sit down with the two founders, Goldschmied joined Tinctorium’s advisory board in a “hands-on” role to help with the creation and implementation of denim products made with their biologically-engineered indigo dye. Zhu called the first meeting with Goldschmied “magical” and said their interests immediately aligned as the legendary designer has been spending a great deal of time running his House of Gold creative agency. House of Gold works to advise and assist companies like Tinctorium that have tech that could be valuable to the denim industry—and just need a leg to stand on.
Zhu said whatever product ends up coming out of her business, it will certainly have the “Adriano stamp of approval.”
“For us, it was just a huge validation. It’s an area of the denim industry that needs a lot of attention,” Zhu said. “Plus, in terms of giving us access to the denim industry, that’s huge for us too.”
A certain level of respect among industry professionals is important for Tinctorium because what the company is asking would be relatively new for denim. As brands like Wrangler and Jeanologia grapple with the water consumption required to dye denim for mass consumption, Tinctorium is offering a solution to the other side of the coin—the production of the dye itself. True indigo is difficult and expensive to source, so many businesses synthesize it using dangerous chemicals, and most synthesized dyes also include petroleum products.
“Today, every kilogram of indigo produced uses over 100 kilograms of petroleum. Our technology detaches indigo from the oil industry, enabling a cleaner, greener blue,” the brand’s website reads. “Dyeing is the dirtiest part of jeans production. Our environmentally-friendly process eliminates the need for corrosive reducing agents that pollute our precious water sources.”
Hsu and Zhu also brought in David Breslauer, co-founder and CSO of Bolt Threads, another fashion tech company that works with performance fabrics, to work on their advisory board. Another valuable addition to the team, Zhu said Breslauer brought with him the experience required to merge fashion and technology in today’s markets.
“Because he’s kind of been in the intersection [of fashion and technology] for so long, he gets to be a role model for us in terms of ‘How do we turn this science-based company that came out of a lab and bring it to the fashion industry?” Zhu explained. “It’s a completely different ball game.”
The next step for Tinctorium, now that it has put together its nucleus, is to make a product that people can see and touch. The company has started work on the world’s only jeans line that doesn’t rely on toxic chemicals or petroleum.
“Our short-term plan is to have a limited line of jeans that we can put our name on,” Zhu said. “At the end of the day, our company is a mission-oriented company and we want to set a new standard for how indigo is made and applied. So, by necessity, we have to go out and share the technology with the rest of the market.”