Meet the Japanese Spider Silk Startup Behind North Face’s $1,300 Parka

Now, a Japanese startup, Spiber, is exploring how cobwebs can transform the textile industry. The biotech company started out by making a replica of spider silk in the lab and has since expanded its fabric line to include more sustainable alternatives to wool, cashmere and denim, says Kenji Higashi, Spiber’s head of business development.

The company’s trademark fiber, Brewed Protein, has been used in limited-edition collections with brands including Japanese streetwear brand Sacai and outdoor clothing specialists The North Face Japan.

Currently ramping up production and preparing for a full commercial launch of its textiles, Spiber hopes its technology will help “solve some of the big global challenges we’re facing,” says Higashi.

Spiders create webs by spinning liquid proteins into silk. Although silkworms were bred to produce silk thousands of years ago, spiders are cannibals, which makes them impossible to breed.

That’s why friends Kazuhide Sekiyama and Junichi Sugahara, founders of Spiber, set out to create a synthetic material that is molecularly identical to spider silk. The duo began experimenting as students at Keio University in Yamagata Prefecture in 2004 and founded the company in 2007.

Spiber has studied “thousands of different species of spiders” as well as other silk-producing species, and has compiled a database of silk varieties, says Higashi.

Fermented Protein Polymer Powder is fermented with water, sugar and specially designed microbes.  Once refined, this powder can be processed into a variety of fabrics such as leather, silk or spun yarn.

Having successfully produced the spider silk alternative, the team went on to develop a variety of fermented protein tissues by altering the protein sequence, says Higashi.

Spiber’s fibers are made by fermenting water, sugar and nutrients with specially modified microbes in steel tanks, similar to those used in brewing beer, to produce protein polymers. The polymers are fed through a nozzle and made into fiber, says Higashi.

It hasn’t been an easy journey, however. In 2015, Spiber partnered with The North Face Japan to produce a limited edition of 50 “Moon Parka” jackets to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landings.

But during the design process, the team found that spider silk shrinks when wet and had to modify the protein to make the fiber suitable for an outdoor jacket.

It took four years “to produce a garment that met their standards,” says Higashi. The parkas sold for ¥150,000 (worth around $1,400 in 2019) and the small collection sold out.

A revolution in recycling

Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world. It produces about 2.1 billion metric tons of CO2 every year, according to management consultants McKinsey & Company. About 70% of this comes from production, and textile manufacturing uses large amounts of raw materials and water.
Spiber uses robotics in its factory to help produce its spider silk-inspired fiber.

Higashi says Spiber’s biodegradable textiles are expected to generate just one-fifth of the carbon emissions of animal-based fibers when in large-scale production, according to a life-cycle analysis performed by the company.

Spiber wants to further reduce its environmental impact. The company currently uses sugarcane and corn for its fermentation process — crops that use large volumes of land and divert food resources, says Higashi.

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To address this, Spiber is developing a process called “biosphere circulation” that will convert discarded clothing made from natural materials like cotton into the sugars needed for fermentation.

About 40 million metric tons of textile waste is produced every year, and most of it goes to landfills or incinerators: keeping those textiles in the loop could create a more sustainable alternative, says Higashi.

global expansion

Spiber isn’t the only company taking inspiration from arachnids. In 2016, Adidas incorporated AMSilk’s Biosteel fiber into a sneaker, and in 2017, California textile innovator Bolt Threads unveiled its spider silk-inspired thread, Microsilk, in a gold dress designed by Stella McCartney.
In addition to its collaborations with The North Face Japan, Spiber’s Brewed Protein has been used by Japanese designer Yuima Nakazato for several of their collections and by streetwear brand Sacai for a limited-edition t-shirt line. Higashi says Spiber is also exploring opportunities in the automotive industry.
In 2021, stylist Yuima Nakazato presented a collection at Paris Fashion Week Haute Couture that featured a bright blue fabric made from fermented protein fibers and silk.
According to the company, Spiber has raised around ¥100 billion ($783 million) from investors including financial firms Carlyle and Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities, as well as donations from government organizations and startup development funds.
This funding will allow the company to expand beyond its pilot plant in Yamagata – opening a small factory in Thailand later this year and a larger facility in the US next year in partnership with multinational food processing company Archer Daniels Midland Company. Higashi says this will allow the production of thousands of tons of fermented protein by the end of 2023.

Higashi says the scaling will help bring down the price of Brewed Protein and allow Spiber to expand beyond the high-end designer market.

“We have the means to create solutions to enable a more circular fashion”, says Higashi. “It is our mission to bring these solutions to the world.”

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