Jamie Bainbridge is the VP of Product Development at Bolt Threads, and this year’s Positive Impact Award winner for Advancing Sustainability Through Technology. Before joining Bolt Threads, Jamie was a founder and Director of Product, Textiles and Sustainability for Nau Clothing and she also worked in R&D at Nike and Patagonia.
I recently caught up with Jamie to talk about Bolt Threads plans to make Spider Silk, a material that is stronger than steel and softer than Merino wool. According to Jamie, it will be by manipulating the genes of bacteria to get them to produce the same silken threads that spiders spin from glands in their behind.
DEB JOHNSON: Let’s start at the point of inspiration, the spider. What is it that makes them so remarkable?
JAMIE BAINBRIDGE: Spiders are among a number of organisms that produce silks and spiders can produce six completely different types of silks with different characteristics, a very strong one, a stretchy one, a very fine one and a sticky one and they use these to build their webs. Every time they come to a joint they lay down some glue. They are changing the order of the amino acids that are the building blocks of the proteins as they extrude the silk -all from inside their body. When you see that you can get a wide palette of materials that have very different characteristics it’s inspiring – we hope to engineer not just one material but we hope to engineer combinations of materials, for example, a strong and stretchy fiber or a lightweight, anti-microbial fiber mixing the characteristics to get exactly what we want. This is only the first group of proteins we’re working with. We can also build any protein secreted by any animal, so this is a technology platform that can go well beyond silk in the future.
DEB: So how is this different is this from how we produce things now?
JAMIE: We should be able to become very predictive in what we can make. This is a very unique way of designing molecules and a very new way of making things in the world-asking microbes to be the factory that produce physical products is a completely new concept. We’re used to extracting non-renewable, raw materials that can’t be replaced and significantly changing them into what we want – like smelting iron for example. Bioengineering and the concept of designing molecules is a fundamental change in how we think about getting renewable resources for manufacturing.
DEB: What are the ingredients used to make Spider Silk?
JAMIE: The inputs are yeast, sugar and water. It’s a traditional brewing process that you find in beer, the same process to make insulin or chymosin, which is used in cheese making. It’s an age-old process. In beer you’re asking the yeast to make alcohol, we’re asking the yeast to make proteins.
DEB: How are you assessing the impacts of Spider Silk, compared with say farming cotton or making polyester or rayon?
JAMIE: Every textile is its own story in terms of environmental impacts. The way I look at this one is that we’ve got a completely renewable set of inputs at the front end, we have a completely biodegradable end of life story and we’re designing a very clean process in the middle. We will use a lot of water but we have a water treatment facility that will reuse it again and again and again and we will recapture the chemistry and reapply it, creating a closed loop system. Waste is minimal – and chemistry and water are too expensive to waste.
DEB: Where are you now in the arc of getting Spider Silk onto the market?
JAMIE: I wish I could answer that succinctly, but it’s science, I can’t. We’re getting better and better at meeting the specs. The top three characteristics – tenacity, denier and elongation need to be balanced and being able to reproduce it with consistency is the trick. There are a million other factors alongside it for example, if it doesn’t feel good, forget it. The first one we make will be a general workhorse fiber – from an aesthetic perspective it will be close to silkworm silk, not like a thermoplastic.
DEB: Tell us a bit about the Bolt Threads team and how you work together.
JAMIE: We’re about 70 people, the process starts in the biology lab where they work on the amino acid sequences, from there it moves into fermentation – keeping the yeast happy until the proteins are formed, from there it goes into a whole cell broth where we pull off the proteins we want. From there it goes into fiber spinning. We work across functions a ton. The analytics crew is looking at the process throughout and our corporate culture that puts a lot of effort into communication – good or bad we need to know what’s going on.
DEB: Would you encourage young people to head down the path of material science?
JAMIE: I’ve worked with materials development most of my career and when you’re at a forefront of science working on something like this, where there’s no one to go to for the answers – is really exciting stuff and a fascinating process. We have some of the brightest minds working on this – maybe I’m a nerd.