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Japan to focus on spinning synthetic spider silk

YarnsandFibers News Bureau 2016-05-17 11:30:00 – US

Outdoor gear retailer North Face in Japan to sell a $1,000, special edition "Moon Parka," a gold-colored jacket made out of synthetic spider silk, based on the design of its existing Antarctica parka, a super-strong material developed by Spiber Inc.

Spiber President Kazuhide Sekiyama, who invented the company's technology to make artificial spider silk, said that the world's first commercial piece of clothing made from the bio-fiber protein material is just the beginning.

Spiber and its partner Goldwin Inc, a Japanese sports apparel maker, plan to expand the use of the ersatz silk-made products, possibly for underwear products used by mountain climbers or the Canterbury rugby wear brand.

Natural spider thread, a protein fiber, is known for its superpowers as a material. It's stronger than steel on a relative basis and more elastic than nylon. Unlike nylon and polyester, spider thread isn't derived from petroleum, and doesn't release a large volume of carbon dioxides in the manufacturing process.

Scientists at Spiber have examined various species of spiders to understand the genetic sequence of silk proteins and accumulated data on hundreds of types of gene synthesis. The company uses genetically altered micro-organisms to mass produce a silk-protein material called "Qmonos," meaning spider's web in Japanese.

The firm inserts DNA it designed into bacteria, and grow them by feeding sugar-using a similar fermentation process to making sake or beer. They then take out silk proteins from the micro-organisms and refine them into thread.

Overseas firms are also working on similar processes and competition is set to intensify.

Spiber said its protein-based fiber technology can also be applied to everything from cars to artificial blood vessels and could revolutionize production of various industrial products.

Synthetic materials that can be mass produced cheaply and aren't reliant on fossil fuels are good for the planet and reduce the probability of human conflict.

The global market for textiles is $3 trillion, and Spiber believe there is a huge opportunity for sustainably produced protein microfibers.

Despite its outsized ambitions, the company only has a staff of about 100 and has relied on funding from sponsors, including venture capital firm Jafco Co. and Keio University. Goldwin also owns about 10 percent of Spiber. To fund further research, Sekiyama is "seriously" considering selling Spiber's shares to the public, while he plans to hire new staff to keep pace with expansion.

Spiber faces hurdles, according to Yoku Ihara, the president of Growth & Value Stock Research of Japan, a retail equity researcher. The biggest: Proving to manufacturers that its fiber technology can work on a mass scale and offer superior performance and savings versus existing materials.

They want to offer customers with materials that would address the environmental issues and be the best fit with mankind.

Man-made spider silk still has a ways to go before being an economically viable alternative for clothing companies. The Moon Parka is a case in point: the North Face jacket using conventional materials costs 80,000 yen ($736).

The price of the Moon Parka should be much higher, considering the current material cost, but they are not going to set the price too high because they like to see more people wearing it, said Takao Watanabe, senior executive officer of Goldwin.

Goldwin has contracts to sell sportswear under the brands of North Face, Helly Hansen and Canterbury in Japan. Watanabe wants to explore the use of the artificial silk in daily-use sports underwear after the launch of the Moon Parka to target a mass-production market.

He is also keen to offer Canterbury sportswear, using synthetic silk, to capitalize on Japan's current rugby boom. Goldwin will have the opportunity to promote artificial silk made products at the 2019 World Rugby Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to be hosted by Japan.

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