TSURUOKA, YAMAGATA PREF. – After more than a decade developing what it considers the world’s first synthetic spider thread, Japanese biomaterial company Spiber Inc. is close to going to market with its first product — a gold-colored outer jacket woven from the material.
But the launch, planned for 2016, is only the beginning of the innovations the company has in mind with its new high-function protein material, according to Spiber chief and founder Kazuhide Sekiyama, 32.
The firm is aiming to replace a large portion of petrochemical polymers, such as nylon and polyester, with sustainable protein materials that are tailor-made at the molecular level.
So why all the uproar? For one thing the potential real world applications for the materials appear to be numerous and significant.
“Our materials can evolve, like spiders strengthening their silk over successive generations for survival,” Sekiyama, Spiber’s representative executive officer, said in a recent interview.
The Moon Parka jackets will be available from apparel retailer The North Face, with the price yet to be decided. They are expected to be sold in limited volumes at first, he said.
Spider silk is known for its toughness, being stronger than steel of the same weight and more elastic than nylon. But unlike the silkworm, cultivating spiders to obtain their silk for industrial use has been impossible, given their aggressively cannibalistic nature.
In early 2007, Sekiyama, then a graduate student at Keio University, and Junichi Sugahara, an undergraduate in the same university laboratory, succeeded in producing a small amount of recombinant fibroin, the protein that forms the main component of spider silk. They started their company later that year.
Based in a small city in Yamagata Prefecture, where the university’s lab for advanced biosciences is located, Spiber researchers decode the genetic information of fibroin taken from spiders and artificially synthesize genes based on this information to optimize the ensuing fermentation processes.
They then introduce the genes into host microbes to create recombinant fibroin. Once separated from the host microbes, the protein is refined and spun into fibers, according to the company.
Spiber is steadily raising productivity, and it has so far synthesized around 650 variations of fibroin genes, the company said.
“Depending on the design (of recombinant genes), a vast variety of materials can be created,” and it will be possible to create bespoke protein materials with specific strength and elasticity characteristics required by customers, Sekiyama said.
Its commercial applications need not be limited to the apparel industry but also apply to the automotive, medical and other industries, he said.
The material is also environmentally sustainable, as the biological manufacturing process does not depend on a finite resource such as petroleum.
Spiber believes its biodegradable material could help with creating lighter, more fuel-efficient cars with high shock absorbance abilities, leveraging the characteristic durability of spider silk.
“There are not many environmentally sustainable materials that have good properties and can be made cheaply. I thought spider silk could clear them all,” Sekiyama said.
But getting the firm off the ground was tough, as there was little trust in its theories, and it was difficult to raise the necessary funds for experiments.
“At the beginning, (developing artificial spider silk) was often looked at dubiously,” he said.
One of Spiber’s key turning points was the alliance they formed in 2012 with Kojima Industries Corp., an auto parts supplier for Toyota Motor Corp.
“To raise our stage from a laboratory research level to a mass-production level, there was a huge barrier,” Sekiyama said, adding that moves toward the product’s commercialization have accelerated dramatically since then.
Spiber built a prototype studio with Kojima Industries in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, in 2013, and set up a factory for mass production beside it last May. It also won the backing of the government’s support program for high-risk, high-return ventures with ¥3 billion (around $25 million) in grants in 2014.
Spiber is now busy preparing for the launch of the jackets made from spider silk-inspired recombinant protein polymers, named Qmonos, a play on the Japanese word for spider web.
The company is not hesitant to team up with rival ventures in the field to hasten the spread of the material, Sekiyama said, adding that listing the company’s shares on the stock market would be “one dominant tool” to procure the necessary funds to advance its research.
“Launching this kind of new industry costs money for capital investment, unlike IT (information technology),” he said.
Sekiyama hopes Spiber will contribute to resolving conflicts that arise due to problems with finite resources through its innovations in industrial materials.
“Since I was in high school, I have been thinking of running a business that can help solve global issues,” he said. “I want to devote myself to something that I can believe in and create the most value out of life.
“Now, I feel that I have finally come near the starting point,” he said.