The company’s trademarked fiber, Brewed Protein, has been used in limited-edition collections by brands including Japanese streetwear brand Sacai and outdoor apparel specialist The North Face Japan.
Spiber, which is currently scaling up production and preparing its textiles for full commercial launch, hopes its technology will help “solve some of the big global challenges we face,” Higashi said.
So Spiber founders Kazuhide Sekiyama and Junichi Sugahara decided to create a synthetic material that is molecularly identical to spider silk. The two started experimenting as students at Keio University in Yamagata Prefecture in 2004 and founded the company in 2007.
Spiber studied “thousands of spiders” and other silk-producing species, and collected a database of silk breeds, Higashi said.
After successfully producing a cobweb alternative, Higashi says, the team continued to develop a variety of brewed protein fabrics by altering the protein sequence.
Spiber’s fibers are made by fermenting water, sugar and nutrients with specially modified microorganisms in steel tanks to produce protein polymers, similar to those used in beer making. The polymer is fed through a nozzle and spun into fibers, Higashi says.
But it was not an easy journey. In 2015, Spiber worked with The North Face Japan to produce a limited edition of 50 “Moon Parka” jackets to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
However, during the design process, the team discovered that webs shrink when wet, and they had to modify the protein to make the fibers suitable for outdoor jackets.
“It took four years to produce clothing that met the standards,” says Higashi. The parka sold for 150,000 yen (worth about $1,400 in 2019) and the small collection is sold out.
Higashi says that lifecycle analysis conducted by Spiber shows that Spiber’s biodegradable fibers, once fully produced, are expected to generate only one-fifth of the carbon footprint of animal fibers.
But Spiber wants to further reduce its environmental impact. The company is currently using sugar cane and corn for its fermentation process, Higashi says.
To address this, Spiber is developing a process called “biosphere cycling” that converts discarded clothing made from natural materials like cotton into sugars needed for fermentation.
Higashi says the expansion will lower the price of Brewed Protein and help Spiber expand beyond the high-end designer market.
“We have the means to create solutions that enable a more circular fashion,” says Higashi. “It is our mission to bring these solutions to the world.”