Silk Inc, a biomaterials startup from Massachusetts, has secured 30 million US dollars earlier this month in an investment round which included the Kraft Group and Roy P. Disney. Using just silk cocoons and water, the company has developed Liquid Silk, a natural replacement for petroleum-based finishing agents, additives and microplastics which are commonly used in the textile and cosmetics industries.
Founded in 2013 by silk experts Gregory Altman and Rebecca Lacouture, the company started by launching its own skincare line free of synthetic fillers and harsh preservatives. With the investment, they will be able to scale up the production of Liquid Silk to also meet the demands of the global apparel industry. FashionUnited spoke to Altman to learn more about the technology and the company’s plans for the future.
Can you tell us a little bit more about Liquid Silk? What is it and how is it made?
The silk fiber is one of nature’s greatest designs: a natural polymer made from a single protein, fibroin. Fibroin has a unique property: it loves both water and oil and can easily bond with other molecules, like collagen and nylon, without the need for additional chemistry. So we take cocoons that are discarded by the silk industry, those which are not ideal for silk fabrics, purify them and dissolve the pure fibroin protein into a stable liquid state by using only salt and water. Therefore, we’re not making artificial silk in a lab or genetically engineering protein, we’re taking pure natural silk and coaxing it into this new but natural state.
Then, we use Liquid Silk as a key ingredient in our skincare products, or we ship a barrel to a mill in Asia for application to fabrics. At the mill, traditional finishing agents are replaced with natural silk. It’s a simple swap out of Liquid Silk instead of petroleum-based chemistries in the coating bath through which fabrics are passed.
How did the idea for it come about?
Rebecca and I have been working together for nearly 20 years, first at school, then founding our first company together [She has a background in biomedicine and he is a biotechnology engineer]. It was Beck’s personal story, though, what made us care so deeply about giving back to the community. As a cancer survivor, Beck saw firsthand the lack of truly clean and safe skincare products on the market, especially ones that would be compatible with chemotherapy. In fact, her doctor told her to throw away all of her products. That stuck with her, and me.
Now Silk Inc wants to expand from skincare to apparel. How can Liquid Silk impact the textile industry?
At least 150 agents are routinely used in the manufacturing and finishing processes of clothing, some of which have been shown to include parabens, phthalates and BPA -- which can be dangerous to humans and the environment. What these chemicals do today is create fabric durability, softer hand feel, sweat wicking, water repellency… The list goes on and on.
As consumers, we take all this for granted, we never really question it. We get up, get dressed and move on with our lives. So what Silk Inc is trying to do is motivate society to start thinking about clothing and all the associated elements of its production as an important aspect of public health.
Think of it this way: we’ve been so concerned about what we put in our bodies through the food we eat that we’ve neglected to think about what we put on our bodies by way of skincare and clothing that literally sits on our skin 24 hours a day.
Liquid Silk is non-toxic. It doesn’t persist in the environment and it performs as well as the undisclosed synthetic chemicals across key performance fabric metrics like wicking, hand feel and pilling, all that at a very competitive price point.
Additionally, Liquid Silk technology in apparel is ready to go today. Our platform is now commercially scalable and compatible with the machinery already used to finish textiles, so the ramp-up time is minimal. No changes are required to the processes that mills use to manufacture clothes at global scale. No new equipment is needed.
Are there commonly used finishing chemicals Liquid Silk still cannot replace?
Great question. The truth is, despite our great progress, we are just getting started. There are dozens of reasons that petrochemicals are applied to our clothing. Think about the range of fabrics, both synthetic and natural, that are used to make clothes. Today, we are commercially ready at proven scale in synthetic-based textiles like nylon and we’re bullish on the future. We have excellent data across a range of functional features and fabric types, but there is enough need in this industry for natural chemistry to keep us busy for the next decade.
Why is Liquid Silk “100 percent sustainable”?
We source our cocoons from farms whose silkworms are raised on a 100 percent organic diet, without the use of herbicides and pesticides. If you think about it, we’re fundamentally solar powered because mulberry leaves are the sole energy supply and food source of silkworms. This means the agricultural process used to create the energy source that is converted into silk protein does not rely upon crops like sugar, corn or wheat that are genetically modified or reliant upon petrochemical fertilizers. Because silk is a protein, it is fully biodegradable. I should also add that our silk is non-GMO. We don’t create the silk in the lab and we don’t genetically modify our silk.
The silk industry is criticized by some for boiling the silkworm moth together with the cocoon. How does Silk Inc go about finding cocoon suppliers?
We are very picky – and for a good reason. Because we do not need intact silk fibers (we dissolve them anyway), we can use discarded cocoons, ones that are no longer desirable for silk apparel or other textiles. Further, our cocoons are not boiled. That process is only required for preserving the fiber the textile industry relies on, which we don’t need.
Still, we work hard to ensure that our sustainability practices reach back to the earliest part of our production process as we identify, source, and maintain relationships with farmers who share our vision and who meet our standards.
How will Silk Inc use the 30 million US dollars it just received?
We are going to leverage this investment to make an aggressive move into the apparel industry through new platform innovations, strategic partnerships, and marketing. We'll have more to announce on that front soon!
Pictures: courtesy Silk Inc