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Bioengineering Is the New Black: Startups at SXSW Explore Eco-Friendly Material Innovation

It feels like fashion is on the cusp of a tidal wave of innovation, said Suzanne Lee, chief creative officer of Modern Meadow.

As one of the few pioneers in bioengineering, she should know. Her company, in short, is growing leather materials—without animals. “We’re rethinking what the future of materials could be,” she said at SXSW. “Not necessarily copying what nature does, but designing and engineering nature to innovate and make it more sustainable.”

The world at large is coming to terms with earth-friendly alternatives to animal-derived products. See: the Impossible Burger, a vegetarian version that claims to “bleed” like meat would, and Beyond Meat, a similar concept. Though the apparel industry has lagged, there’s now a concerted effort underway to explore new, sustainable approaches to how materials are sourced. “Fashion is waking up and paying attention to all of this,” Lee said. “There are products that consumers can start to buy. No longer is it science fiction, but it’s very much something that we’re beginning to see possible and appear at retail.”

Case in point: a beanie made with 40 percent spider silk (though of course without spiders actually involved) developed by Bolt Threads and sold through Best Made Company last year. Bolt Threads CEO and co-founder Dan Widmaier described the material as a super strong, super stretchy, hypoallergenic, biodegradable fiber, though creating this material at scale requires a “ludicrous” amount of science.

Both Bolt Threads and Modern Meadow take a similar approach to bioengineering: design an organism to serve as a “factory” that can spin up a fiber. At Modern Meadow, scientists engineer a yeast cell to produce collagen, growing the cells in abundance, isolating the protein, and then purifying and assembling them.

“We need to create materials from bottom up, with design intention,” Lee said. “That’s the direction that the fashion industry needs to go in.”

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There’s “huge creative potential” in mastering the science and designing proteins for a purpose, Lee added. She initially was surprised to discover that in the first stage of the engineering process, the leather actually was in liquid form, which opened up a whole new world of possibilities, from screenprinting and spraying it to painting with it. “Why not play with what the science is telling us, rather than what we’ve always done?” she said. “You’re letting the science tell you what it wants to do, rather than pigeonhole it from your limited understanding of the world.”

One of the challenges of working in a cutting-edge field like bioengineering is bridging the divide between creatives and scientists. Because there aren’t many chemist and biologists in fashion, communicating can be difficult, Widmaier noted. Design and science must come together to speak the same language, Lee said, because “the only way to success is if we’re on the same path together.

“Fashion can’t expect science to solve [all the problems]. But scientists need to understand you need to listen to the needs of the customer as well,” Lee said.

How long will it be until bioengineering is simply business as usual in the industry? Widmaier thinks every fashion school will include instruction on alternative material innovation within a decade. It’s like blood delivery by drone in remote areas of Rwanda, he said. On day one, it’s a marvel and a novelty. But by day eight, the only question is why is the delivery 20 seconds late?