The most fascinating innovations often start with a simple idea. What if we could grow a better future? According to a 2015 MIT report on Sustainable Materials, the fashion world produces more than 400 billion square meters of fabric per year and normally you can either exploit natural resources or use synthetics, which is basically plastic.
That was before I heard about biofabrication. There is a true materials revolution taking place in the high-tech labs of the smartest brains on our planet. One of the pioneers in this field is Suzanne Lee.
I first met Suzanne in the Maker’s Space of Parson’s Design School in New York – where she was setting up an exhibition for the third edition of Biofabricate, a summit she had founded together with three other (female) designers in 2013. We were surrounded by materials and artefacts that sounded very much like science fiction to me: chairs grown from mushrooms, jackets made of human leather and ink made of algae.
So how had Suzanne ended up in such a room as the driver of one of most creative and dynamic industries in 2016?
I founded Biofabricate in 2013 out of awe for the inspirational companies emerging in this space and frustration that their work wasn’t receiving more attention. At my previous (London-based) consultancy, Biocouture, we brought some of these companies to the attention of global consumer brand clients, but I wanted to provide a more public platform for these important innovations. For biofabricated materials to have real impact we need to help bring them to market and scale fast, and that takes investment. By shining a light on new technologies you attract the interest of investors to make that happen faster.
How would you describe biofabrication to someone who has never heard about it and why is it such a hot topic right now?
Put simply, biofabrication is making biological materials using living cells. So the perfect example is the adidas Futurecraft Biofabric shoe.
Bacteria is being used as the factories to produce silk biopolymers which are then purified and spun into yarn for the upper of the adidas shoe. So biofabrication enables us to commercially produce new materials created with the building blocks of nature but designed and engineered to have programmable performance properties, all produced in a far more resource-efficient way which is potentially a huge win for the planet.
What drove your interest in the biofabrication space?
My epiphany was in 2003 talking to a materials scientist with a biology background. I was interested in new ways to make materials and he explained that rather than consider a fiber coming from a plant in a field, we could imagine harnessing a living organism like a bacterium, to grow that same fiber for us (grow a dress in a vat of liquid). That was the beginning of a journey for me that made me see our material world in a whole new light. Not as oil-based plastics, concrete, particleboard, synthetic dyes etc. but those same (or better) materials instead made by bacteria, yeast, algae, fungi, and animal cells – the factories of the future. Our ability to read and write with DNA now enables us to design and engineer ‘nature’s’ materials with enhanced performance features, unique aesthetic opportunities AND be 100% sustainable.
At your Biofabricate summit you mix scientists, entrepreneurs, artists and designers. That is quite a melange. Can you explain the dynamic?
Throughout my career it has been the interaction with people outside my own training (fashion design) that has provided the greatest inspiration. I’ve worked with scientists for over a decade so I know how fruitful design/science collaboration can be. I continue to find science is often looking for a solution and informed design can help with that. Coming up with an innovation isn’t always the hardest part, finding an investor and business support are also necessary, so we’re mindful of all these interdependencies as we build the Biofabricate community.
How do you get such a diverse group of people to work together?
It takes many things to create a successful dynamic between often vastly differing backgrounds. Two key components are respect and patience. Designers who approach scientists with ego first can expect to receive short shrift! But that works both ways, some scientists expect designers to be ‘divas’ when in fact the reverse can be true…So you have to start from a place of respect and inquisitiveness. When it works it’s the most exciting and rewarding thing. I’m humbled to be working with such an incredible team of scientists, engineers and designers at Modern Meadow. People assume creativity is led by creatives, and science discovery by scientists, but I’m continually excited to find the reverse to also be true.
So where does adidas fit in this mix of scientists and designers?
Most people can’t tell you what a protein is and likely don’t care, so trying to explain the science behind biofabrication doesn’t connect. But make it into a shoe they can wear and tell them it’s still nature’s material but now engineered to biodegrade at end of life, and you have a compelling reason to care.
It’s never easy bringing new technologies to market. Scientifically founded companies targeting consumer products like new materials have to compete with commodity materials made from cheap plastics, subsidized cotton etc. The innovations we share at Biofabricate take years and years of R&D investment and hard work.
Brands like adidas understand the timelines for transformative R&D and have the drive to want to spark a revolution in sustainable materials so these collaborations are synergistic.
For the many researchers and startup companies who have been pioneering biofabricated materials for years it is incredibly motivating to start seeing the first success stories that will generate excitement in both conscious consumers and investors alike.
What drives you?
That oldie-but-goodie – I want to change the world! I decided a long time ago that my ability to affect change in the entire system of materials and manufacturing was not going to come simply through changing what or how I design as an individual.
We built Biofabricate to give a platform to the people that inspire us and to amplify their vision.
I’m proud of my Biofabricate team for many reasons, but mostly because they’re all female designers, with mostly no formal scientific training, helping to bring some of the most cutting edge science to people in a way that makes it accessible. Amy Congdon, Annelie Koller, Emma van der Leest and all the extended team that work with us are all super-driven to grow this community!
What’s your piece of advice for young entrepreneurs working on an exciting idea but struggling to take it to the next level?
First prove out the commercial viability – does your idea have the potential to scale industrially at a competitive cost? Arm yourself with the best experts you can find to supplement the skills you lack technically, business-wise etc. Meet other young entrepreneurs and share your stories, support one another, you’re likely going through the same challenges and it feels good to know you’re not alone in your struggle. Finally of course, stick with it, changing the world requires grit.