Most people wouldn’t pay $230 for a T-shirt or $1,375 for a parka. But when the North Face Japan put a limited number of these items on the market in 2019, they quickly sold out. The reason: they were made with fiber supplied by Spiber.
The Japanese firm has invented a fermentation-derived material—which it calls Brewed Protein—that when spun into a fiber promises the strength and elasticity of silk and the softness of cashmere wool. Brewed Protein also offers consumers who are environmentally conscious a desirable feature: the material is both made from plant sources and biodegradable in soil and in water.
Spiber produces its novel material in very small quantities at a plant in Japan, which explains why the North Face products were so expensive. Spiber wants to change that using the more than $640 million it has raised from investors. It just opened a larger plant in Thailand and plans an even bigger one in the US that will help make Brewed Protein more affordable. But because Spiber has failed to deliver on promises in the past, some skeptics want to see more results before they declare the company a success.
Spiber was founded in 2007 by Kazuhide Sekiyama and Junichi Sugahara, who were then graduate students in bioinformatics at the Institute for Advanced Biosciences, part of Japan’s Keio University. Sekiyama, now the firm’s CEO, says he’s been fascinated with the idea of producing synthetic spider silk ever since his senior undergraduate year. He tried to derive the material from spider DNA but eventually determined that he couldn’t clone the extremely long sequence.
▸ Founded: 2007
▸ 2019 sales: Less than $2 million
▸ Funding: More than $640 million
▸ Employees: 235
Tsuruoka, Japan: Headquarters, R&D, and production of Brewed Protein (several metric tons per year); Rayong Province, Thailand: Production of Brewed Protein (several hundred metric tons per year).
The company’s first several years focused on trying to industrialize the process of fermenting spider silk–like material and spinning it into a thread. In 2013, it announced the mass production of spider thread–like fiber and the construction of a bench-scale facility that produced the fiber’s raw material via bacteria-based fermentation of sugar.
Spiber caught a break in 2014 when it joined a Japanese government-sponsored research program that allowed it to perform several years of experimentation—extensive and arduous work. “We struggled a lot,” Sekiyama recalls.
Eventually, Spiber created a product it called Qmonos—a name that is a homonym of spiderweb in Japanese. “When we first saw Spiber’s material, we were so excited because it matched our policy on performance and environmental impact,” says Takao Watanabe, president of Goldwin, the Japanese company that has rights to produce North Face products in Japan. “We don’t use fur and wish to reduce our usage of fleece because of its environmental impact.”
It turned out, though, that Qmonos had issues. Notably, like natural spider silk, the material shrank rapidly when it absorbed water—a major problem for a material intended for making clothing.
The North Face had announced plans for a 2016 launch of a jacket called the Moon Parka made from Spiber’s fiber, but it delayed the launch because of the shrinkage problem, called supercontraction. “We requested Spiber to change from hydrophilic to hydrophobic without losing any material functionality,” Watanabe says. It took 3 years, but Spiber delivered.
The company solved the problem by studying nature, Sekiyama says. Spiber researchers took a closer look at the protein in spider silk and identified the amino acids that are responsible for the supercontraction. They then changed the amino acid sequence to create a new gene that, when inserted in bacteria, generated a material that doesn’t shrink when wet.
“Our technology allows us to simulate, in parallel, changes and evolution in the natural world within a laboratory,” Sekiyama says. “We make a tremendously large number of candidate molecules, pick out apparently suitable ones, find out the most promising DNA sequences among them, and push ahead with new generations of the relevant excellent DNA.” Only Spiber has the ability to do that with structured protein at ultrahigh speed, he claims.
The new material, Brewed Protein, is quite different from, and more versatile than, synthetic spider silk, Sekiyama says. Consumers perceive fiber made from Spiber’s material as high end not only because of its performance and biodegradability but also because of its feel.
In blind tests conducted by third parties in Japan and the US, “a majority of the participants said that Brewed Protein felt and looked better than cashmere wool,” Sekiyama says. “Our DNA-design technology allows us to develop new products with more functionality and sophistication than traditional products.”
And although Brewed Protein’s initial application will be in clothing, the material can also be used to produce high-performance structural foam and lightweight auto parts, according to Sekiyama. Spiber plans to build facilities to serve nonfiber markets but has yet to choose a location.
Despite the technology fix, Spiber isn’t out of the woods yet, cautions Charles Willard, an analyst at the consulting firm Lux Research. “The issue of moisture sensitivity was a fatal flaw for spider silk, so it’s undeniably a good thing that Spiber is claiming to have solved this problem,” he says. “However, that does not mean the technology is ready for use. Spiber still needs to demonstrate the product is durable under normal wear and tear.”
Spiber isn’t ready to compete directly against more-established materials, Willard adds. “The company is still at lab scale, and while it claims it will be competitive with cashmere in the medium term, Spiber has a long history of failing to achieve its goals,” he says. “We’re skeptical of any claims it makes until it actually demonstrates volume production.”
Sekiyama acknowledges that the company has more to prove. “We sell the material in limited quantities to the North Face and others for commercialization and development of outdoor-fashion products, and high-fashion products in particular,” he says. “But our plant in Tsuruoka in Yamagata Prefecture can barely meet demand.”
The plant’s modest output is reflected in Spiber’s sales, which were less than $2 million in 2019. The firm employs a little over 230 people, two-thirds of whom work in R&D. It funds its R&D and investment in new capacity almost entirely with cash injections from investors, from which it has managed to attract more than $640 million to date.
This amount includes $230 million arranged by Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities using a mechanism called value securitization. Value securitization allows firms with limited physical assets to raise funds on the basis of the potential value of their intellectual property. So far, few companies in Japan have been able to attract such funds, according to a Spiber spokesperson.
More sales may be on the way. The Thai plant, in Rayong Province, held an inauguration ceremony in March and will soon start testing production. The facility will use sugarcane as a raw material to produce several hundred metric tons of Brewed Protein per year, about 100 times what the plant in Japan can make.
Goldwin’s Watanabe says he eagerly anticipates the expanded output. “When the Thai plant is fully operating, we will be able to offer a broader range of products, from basic products up to high-end products,” he says. “Our customers are outdoors people who care a lot about issues like marine plastic, so we are keen to broadly market this Brewed Protein as soon as possible. By 2025, we hope to be able to develop almost all our products with Brewed Protein.”
Spiber’s planned US facility, in Clinton, Iowa, is the result of an alliance it formed in 2019 with the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. ADM has become one of Spiber’s main shareholders, with a stake in the firm worth about $90 million.
The corn sugar–based plant will be designed to produce thousands of metric tons of Brewed Protein per year, or about 10 times as much as the Thai facility. When the Iowa facility goes into full operation, in 2023 at the earliest, the cost of making Brewed Protein should be significantly lower, Sekiyama says.
“Production cost will go down to $100 per kilogram—much lower than our current costs—when the Thai plant goes into full-fledged commercial operation,” Sekiyama says. “When the Clinton plant enters full-capacity operations, production efficiency will increase further, allowing us to reduce costs to the point where Brewed Protein can take the place of wool and silk.”
Fourteen years have passed since Sekiyama produced a small quantity of synthetic spider silk in a lab. Now, he faces what is perhaps his biggest challenge: making his material a viable competitor to fibers and plastics made from fossil sources.
“After we expand production capacity to tens of thousands of tons per year, we’ll set our sights on replacing petroleum-derived high-performance plastics and nondegradable biobased macromolecular products,” he says. That will mean producing millions of metric tons of Brewed Protein every year. And winning over a lot of skeptics.
Katsumori Matsuoka is a freelance writer based in Japan