Spinning like spiders offers insights for sustainable textiles

I first encountered Janine Benyrus’ brilliant thinking when she wrote a book entitled Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, that was full of stories about nature’s ideas to solve our toughest 21st-century problems. I remember being tremendously impressed by learning that it was possible to regrow the complexity of the prairie – something others have shown you can do with a jungle as well – because I had read many times that this was impossible.

“In these pages,” she wrote,”you’ll meet men and women who are exploring nature’s masterpieces–photosynthesis, self-assembly, natural selection, self-sustaining ecosystems, eyes and ears and skin and shells, talking neurons, natural medicines, and more–and then copying these designs and manufacturing processes to solve our own problems. I call their quest biomimicry–the conscious emulation of life’s genius. Innovation inspired by nature.”

“In a society accustomed to dominating or “improving” nature, this respectful imitation is a radically new approach, a revolution really. Unlike the Industrial Revolution, the Biomimicry Revolution introduces an era based not on what we can extract from nature, but on what we can learn from her. As you will see, “doing it nature’s way” has the potential to change the way we grow food, make materials, harness energy, heal ourselves, store information, and conduct business.”

After it was published in 1997, she created the Biomimicry Institute, which has helped to popularize the idea of designing from nature. “The Biomimicry Institute is equipping a new generation of startup innovators to address critical issues of our time by looking to nature to design solutions that give more than they take,” it says. “Our programs offer support for bringing solutions to market and provide a connective tissue for a global network of innovators.”

Photo by Peter dos Santos on Unsplash

One of the ways it does this is through its Ray of Hope prize, which this year has been awarded to Spintex Engineering, which creates high performance, sustainable textiles that are a thousand times more efficient than equivalent synthetic fibers. It does this by mimicking how a spider spins silk at room temperature.

Over the course of hundreds of millions of years, spiders evolved the ability to create one of the world’s strongest and most adaptable material. The secret lies within their spinnerets, specialized organs that turn the liquid silk gel held in the spider’s abdomen into a solid thread. After years of research, Spintex has managed to mimic the spider’s ability by creating a process to spin textile fibers from a liquid gel, at room temperature, with water and biodegradable textile fibers as the only outputs.

The textile industry is searching for sustainable technologies and solutions that will reduce waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution, and enable a circular economy. Spintex is uniquely positioned as a platform technology, to replace not only silk used in fashion, but also oil-derived synthetic fibers, says the Institute. They estimate that their process is 1,000 times more efficient than an equivalent synthetic fiber. They want to expand on their textile capabilities, creating high-performance textiles with properties, such as stretch and embedded color, all while creating biodegradable and non-bioaccumulating textiles.

“Going through the Ray of Hope program has been a fantastic experience. It’s been wonderful to see such a wide variety of great startups focused on using Nature’s lessons to build the future. All of us at Spintex are deeply honored to be selected as the winners of the 2021 prize and are so grateful for the opportunity given to us,” said Alex Greenhalgh, CEO and co-founder of Spintex.

The Prize, whose name honours the late sustainable business pioneer Ray C. Anderson, is awarded each year to the world’s top nature-inspired startup after 10 finalist teams conclude a 10-week accelerator program. This year, Spintex and nine other participating companies were chosen from a pool of 301 applicants from 49 countries. All participants in the program learned about sustainable business practices, met with industry and startup mentors, and refined their scientific communication skills.

By learning from nature, companies like Spintex are creating new products, materials, and processes that solve fundamental sustainability challenges.

The $25,000 runner-up is Aquammodate, a Swedish company that is creating water filtration systems, inspired by diatoms and aquaporin proteins. Their energy-efficient and selective technology produces high purity grade water in a single filter pass, desalination at any scale, and removes industrial pollutants and contaminants such as arsenic, microplastics, and pharmaceutical residues.

“A sustainable and closed-loop system exists in nature, and the Prize amplifies solutions that bring human designs into closer harmony with natural solutions,” said Jared Yarnall-Schane, Entrepreneurship Director at the Biomimicry Institute. “This year’s cohort offers real examples of this nature-inspired approach, while also collectively taking on global sustainability challenges that represent billions of dollars of business opportunity.”