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YnFx Sustainable Conversations

Orr Yarkoni – Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Colorifix Limited

Our recent interaction with Orr Yarkoni, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Colorifix Limited discuss the company's revolutionary bio-dyeing technology, how it works, and its potential to transform the whole dyeing industry.

[Interview] Colorifix uses synthetic biology to produce sustainable dyes

2021-09-13 12:29:00 – United Kingdom

Based in Norwich, England, Colorifix is a biotechnology startup that has created a sustainable dyeing process that uses microorganisms to transform agricultural waste products into dyes, reducing the amount of water and energy used in the process.

Colorfix offers a totally new solution based on synthetic biology that completely eliminates the use of harsh chemicals and results in massive savings in water usage while fulfilling all major industry requirements.

Their goal is to learn from nature, not to take from it, and that’s why they use biology for the entire process of dyeing.

Our recent interaction with Orr Yarkoni, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Colorifix Limited discuss the company's revolutionary bio-dyeing technology, how it works, and its potential to transform the whole dyeing industry.

YnFx: What led to the discovery of Colorifix bio dyeing process?

Yarkoni: Jim and I met at the University of Cambridge while working on a water contamination project. We were developing biological sensors to test arsenic levels in drinking water. These sensors were based on engineered microorganisms that would respond to the presence of arsenic by changing color: red meant it was present at unsafe amounts, blue meant it was not. In 2013, we traveled to Nepal and Bangladesh to test these sensors and work with stakeholders to implement them in the region. 

While we were there, we spent time with locals and learned that the cause of the water contamination was the textile dyeing industry. Textile dyeing is one of the most chemically intensive industries on earth and the world’s largest polluter of increasingly scarce freshwater. Additionally, huge quantities of water and energy are consumed in the production of pigments and the dyeing process itself. From greenhouse gas emissions to unsafe factory conditions and polluted rivers and streams, we began to understand the devastating effects of the industry on the natural environment and human health.

Jim and I realized that, instead of just testing the presence of water contamination by using color-producing microorganisms, we could use the same technology to actually solve the problem at the heart of the issue. 

YnFx: How does Colorifix bio dyeing process work?

Yarkoni: Colorifix has developed the first entirely biological process to produce, deposit, and fix pigments onto textiles. Inspired by nature’s own tools—and engineered with synthetic biology— our dyeing process uses zero harsh chemicals, allows significant savings in water and energy at every step of the dyeing process, and meets key industry quality requirements.

The first step is to identify a color produced by an organism in nature— whether a plant, animal, insect, or microbe. Through DNA sequencing, we pinpoint the exact genetic information that encodes for the production of that color and translates that information into our engineered microorganism. We then ship a tiny quantity of microorganisms to dye houses that then grow the color— something we support with the implementation of on-site fermentation capability— just as beer is brewed using local, renewable feedstocks. The resulting broth is then used directly in place of dye liquor to transfer and fix the dyes onto textiles, requiring no additional specialist equipment or toxic chemicals. 

YnFx: What is the environmental footprint of your dyeing method and how does it ensure sustainability?

Yarkoni: The Colorifix technology improves each stage of the dyeing process from an environmental perspective. In contrast to synthetic dyes which are made of toxic petrochemicals, our pigments are produced as nature produces them and grown simply using sugar and nitrogen.

Conventional dyeing requires heavy metals and salts to create a permanent bond between color and fiber. Our microorganisms, on the other hand, are able to concentrate the micronutrients, salts, and metals that are naturally present in water to levels that improve the efficiency of dye/fabric interaction. In other words, we are leveraging nature’s own process to create an environment where the fixation of the dye happens efficiently without needing to artificially create that environment with harsh additives. In summary, nothing toxic goes into our dye process, which means nothing toxic comes out of it.

We recently conducted a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) at our pilot dye house in Portugal. The results showed that to dye one ton of cotton, we saved 68.6% water and 70.8% energy compared to conventional dye processes. This results in an overall 64% reduction in carbon emissions. We will be conducting a third-party LCA to confirm these results in September 2021. 

But our technology is more than just a dyeing process. Our decentralized model promotes circular economies in textile dyeing regions: cheap, local feedstocks are converted into high-value dyes and carbon emissions are drastically reduced by eliminating the need to source large quantities of chemicals from major producers such as China. And because our colors are compatible with standard dyeing machines, cost-competitive with synthetic dyes, and perform to key industry standards, we are minimizing barriers to adoption and ensuring that no jobs are displaced. In summary, Colorifix offers a real, viable solution to turn one of the most environmentally damaging industries into one of the most sustainable. 

YnFx: What are the key milestones achieved by Colorifix to date?

Yarkoni: In the last year, we’ve doubled our phenomenal, interdisciplinary team from 19-34 people. We’ve also initiated a Colorifix Creative Residency and hired our first Coloration Trainee who will learn to operate a dye house while following an educational path through the Society of Dyers & Colourists. 

Our pigment palette grew from 10 to 30. Each pigment that we borrow from nature goes through an optimization process to make it usable in our dyeing process. We are now close to having a full library of pigments that can then be mixed to create more colors. 

We won an Innovate UK-funded antiviral pigment project with the University of Cambridge and agreed with terms to dye products for a customer in the PPE market.

We initiated our first industrial pilot in our Portugal dye house in Q2 2020 at which we have recently completed our first capsule collection for a brand launch. We have also built a new demonstration plant in Cambridge, U.K.

We developed our own line of fermentors, allowing on-site fermentation to become accessible to our clients by providing a bespoke, low-cost solution. 

YnFx: What were the challenges or limitations faced while creating the bio dyeing process?

Yarkoni: The operationalization of our customer implementation process is something we’re working very hard on. Taking a new technology into an industrial context that has been unchanged for decades will always present challenges, but we have an amazing Business Implementation team that will be guiding each of our new customers through the setup and providing continual support. 

YnFx: What are the future goals of Colorifix?

Yarkoni: We are partnering with dye houses across Europe and in India, and we have plans to enter eastern Asia where the majority of the textile dyeing industry is currently located. We also have quite a few exciting brand launches coming up. So our short-term goal is to just keep moving and improving.

In the long term, we want to spark real change in the industrial dyeing industry. As an environmentally friendly dye process that is cost-competitive to conventional dyeing, we think we have a real shot. But at the same time, we are so excited to be seeing a huge variety of different sustainable dyeing companies and communities out there. For the industry to evolve, we need a variety of options that will work for all different contexts.

We’re also passionate about education. Many people are aware of the negative impacts of fashion in general, but they don’t necessarily think of the color of the clothing to be a major contributor to the problem. And our technology! We think synthetic biology, genetic engineering, and biotechnology are amazing tools that can benefit us socially and environmentally, and we want to share that with everyone.

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