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Protein-Based Alternative to Nylon and Spandex Gets $3.7 Million

Chui-Lian Lee was studying fashion, not science, when she was introduced to a fluorescent, pink substance that would inspire what would become Werewool. On Wednesday, the company created from the product she developed and patented along with her alma mater, the Fashion Institute of Technology and Columbia University, announced a $3.7 million seed funding round led by Material Impact and Sofinnova Partners to advance Werewool, which produces biodegradeable fibers with protein-based color and performance properties.

Lee’s introduction to the concept of biomimicry came as part of FIT’s Bio-Design Challenge, developed by professor and Werewool co-founder Dr. Theanne Schiros, and meant to introduce non-science students to biotechnology.

“That took me down this rabbit hole of showing me how nature creates the color and function of your protein structure,” Lee told Sourcing Journal. “So it was from there my mind kind of exploded, and was like, oh yeah, nature can create water-proofing, nature can create UV protection, moisture management, all of these performance traits that we currently use toxic dyes and performance finishes for.”

According to Schiros, a protein’s shape is the key to performance attributes.

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“It’s in the shape of a protein that can dictate function elasticity, moisture management—even color—all traits desired by the textile industry that currently come at a high environmental cost,” she said. “Werewool is emulating nature strategy to create biodegradable textile fibers in a range of natural colors and fluorescence attributed to protein structure.”

Werewool fibers have the potential to help eliminate the need for petroleum-based materials, which drew interest from Sofinnova Partners, a life-science, sustainability-focused venture capital firm in Europe.

“We believe that biology will play an increasingly important role in the future of clothing and are excited to partner with Werewool in their mission to bring sustainable and biodegradable fibers to market,” said Michael Krel, partner at Sofinnova Partners.

Corinna Chen, partner at co-lead funder Material Impact, added that Werewool is a “breakthrough approach for sustainable and functional textiles.”

Practical applications of the technology are at least 12 months away.

“Initially, our goal is to prove we can turn our proteins into fibers,” Lee said. “They won’t have the requisite mechanical properties, but, really, our long-term vision and our goal as a company is to replace synthetic fibers that make up 63 percent of all clothing that we wear to replace your polyester nylon and spandex with fibers that have protein-based functionality.”

Lee said Werewool stands apart from other polyester alternatives by addressing issues of fossil fuel use in production while carving out biodegradable end-of-life capabilities.

“We’re eliminating petroleum-based feedstocks, and thereby reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the raw materials due to production,” Lee said. “We’re also eliminating the dyeing and finishing stages of production because we’re replacing those traits with proteins that create that functionality. And finally, we really think about it as a whole system, so at the end of a product’s life cycle, our products won’t degrade into microplastics; they are going to degrade into building blocks throughout the ecosystem.”

When Werewool, headquartered in Brooklyn, does go to market, Lee predicts its simplest use case would be in the form of pink yoga pants, but consumers could soon find it in clothing of all sorts, styles and colors, especially those that require elasticity.

“Anything that is a synthetic fiber would be part of it, so your rain jacket, your running shorts, your sports bras, even your dress shirts usually have some polyester in them—synthetics are just in everything nowadays, so we’re really hoping to replace them in product development,” Lee said.

She sees Werewool becoming a “worldwide business.”

“We’re developing our technology to really be a plug-and-play solution for the textile industry,” Lee said. “We’re hoping to really partner with existing fiber manufacturers to distribute our fiber so hopefully, we’ll be in your closet and my closet and everyone’s closet.”