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Would Material Innovators Be Better Off ‘Staying in Your Lane’?

Each passing day seems to deliver some new material innovation, from mango, cactus and mycelium, to lotus, pineapple and now squid protein. The problem in the sector is not lack of innovation, but the lack of information and ways to explain it, according to Theanne Schiros, PhD., associate professor of science and mathematics at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.

 “There are no standards,” Schiros told attendees at Sourcing Journal’s Sustainability Summit last week. “I feel a little bit like it’s impeding tech transfer from lab and startup to marketplace.”

Even the definition of biodegradable is unclear, Schiros said during a panel which was moderated by Lauren Parker, director, SJ Studio, Sourcing Journal. According to the science professionals, this refers to are materials degraded by non-toxic microorganisms in natural environments like marine environments or soil environments. Enzymes that break it down are the scissors and glue of nature that disassemble things and return them to the earth as fluid.

Yet some other materials considered biodegradable like polylactic acid, or PLA, take years to break down. “That doesn’t mean it’s not biodegradable,” Schiros noted. PLA is biodegradable; it passes through the human body as lactic acid, but is not compostable.

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“It needs a higher temperature,” Schinos told the panel which also included Thomasine Dolan Dow, materials innovation and design director, Material Innovation Initiative (MII), a think tank dedicated to fast-tracking environmentally safe and animal-free materials, and Joey Pringle, founder, Veshin Factory, which manufactures goods made from sustainable textiles and leather alternatives. “There are only 30 facilities in the country that have the ability to compost PLA but that doesn’t mean it’s fundamentally non-compostable.”

Pringle underscored the lack of clarity in the sector, noting a rush to release products that weren’t quite ready for market. “It’s a complete mess right now, to be honest,” he said.

The lack of clarity applies to mycelium materials in particular. Pringle said he gets requests regularly from manufacturers wanting to do a mycelium collection, but the material exists only in laboratories and in the minds of forward-thinking marketing people. He thinks people are getting ahead of themselves before the product is ready for market, though brands from Stella McCartney to Lululemon have already developed mycelium-based products. Reformation is sniffing around the next-gen entrant as well.

“For sure, I want to see it happen,” said Pringle. “But that said, there is an element of staying in your lane to go behind closed doors for a couple of years, figure it out, then go public.”

Pringle estimates that there’s about $400 million invested in the development of mycelium, but still there’s little to show for it except for a capsule collection or two. He believes Natural Fiber Welding is the one company on top of the sector, “which is why we’re working with them,” he said. Veshin manufactures lines with products from the Ralph Lauren-backed startup.

Last year, investors put $456.75 million into mycelium development, with MycoWorks claiming a $125 million piece of the pie.  NFW came in second in the investment sweepstakes, with $83 million.

That is said to be less than the year before but there were no fears expressed by panelists of a severe downturn in investment dollars. According to MII’s Dow, there was the usual talk of global recession, but the sector just seems to be taking a break and waiting to see where the dust settles. “Let’s just sit back a little bit because a lot of money has been sunk into these places,” she said. “Let’s see who’s doing what, who’s rising to the occasion.”

A number of new players experimenting with new materials is coming down the pike. Dow noted she is working with a group of freshly minted scientists in Florida who are trying to create next-gen products from seaweed.

She is also working with a Penn State professor on a fiber made with squid protein which, she said, unlocks a world of possibilities in terms of fibers. It is a filament fiber like silk, which is strong, really fine and takes color beautifully. It can be blended with cotton, among other things, and there are many possible applications because it is made from protein.

Schiros also works with the next generation of next-gen researchers. The company she co-founded, Werewool, is a minority and woman-led and -founded early-stage biotech company, staffed by her former textile development and marketing students from FIT. It operates out of the SUNY Downstate incubator for startups.

The team is developing fiber from proteins, with colors from engineered proteins. That means they don’t have to be dyed, cutting out about 15-20 percent of the cost of the product in addition to lessening any environmental impact usually associated with textile dyeing.

Schiros called herself a delusional optimist, unafraid to face the challenging problems of developing new sustainable products. Her advice to material innovators hoping for success is to be bold, listen, figure out what brands want and get as much feedback on your process as possible to understand what people need. “It’s probably like a metaphor for most of life,” she said.