A Replacement for Petroleum-based Materials

Spiber Inc. (Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture; Director and Representative Executive Officer: Kazuhide Sekiyama) is a biomaterial venture company making major advances towards the commercialization of synthetic protein materials. At the end of 2018, the company established a plan to construct a fermentation and purification plant for mass production in Thailand, and is aiming to begin commercial production in 2021. Representative Sekiyama tells us, “We have been conducting research for 15 years, and mass production has only become feasible in the last year or two. We’ve finally gotten to the start line.”

Spiber expects to attain profitability within two or three years after starting operations at the Thailand plant.

Financial Institutions Recognize Potential

Kazuhide Sekiyama founded Spiber in 2007, and the company has pursued the development of synthetic protein materials using microbial fermentation with the aim of producing next-generation biomaterials. Sekiyama shares his original inspiration, “I was interested in solving social issues from my days as a student. One source of inspiration for the theme [of biomaterials] was discovering synthetic spider silk.” Sekiyama thought that a protein material like spider silk, which could be recycled similar to plant-based proteins, could serve as a replacement for petroleum.

Spiber researched methods to efficiently manufacture synthetic protein materials by analysing the amino acid sequences that compose proteins as well as genetic synthesis. It furthermore explored techniques for wet-spinning materials, and making them usable in sheet form. Spiber’s track record of research towards the commercialization of synthetic proteins gained attention among companies and investors, and the company was able to raise a total of 10 billion yen in funding in 2015, with a 3-billion-yen investment coming from GOLDWIN INC., and another 6 billion yen in 2018.

When Spiber set up its Thai manufacturing plant in April this year, it secured 6.5 billion yen in funding from Mitsubishi UFJ and other financial institutions. Sekiyama explains, “[The banks] recognized the potential and effectiveness of our business.”

A Strength in Design

Spiber’s “Brewed Protein™ (BP)” synthetic protein material has finally come to market this year in limited quantities under the joint THE NORTH FACE Sp. label with GOLDWIN. The label’s cotton T-shirt released in August incorporates Brewed Protein material, and the outer surface of the MOON PARKA launching in December is made from 100%-Brewed-Protein material.

Synthetic protein material is gaining attention worldwide as a next-generation material with the potential to replace petroleum-based products. While ventures in Europe and North America have also begun development, Spiber prides itself on being ahead of the pack when it comes to commercialization. Sekiyama describes Spiber’s strength, “Natural spider silk is not suitable as an industrial or fibre material, and simple imitations are also unusable. Our company has all the fundamental technologies, and no one else has our strength when it comes to protein design.”

The MOON PARKA prototype Spiber created in 2015 used synthetic spider silk, but the material had the issue of contracting when wet. Spiber therefore threw itself wholly into the development of Brewed Proteins, which allowed manipulation of the protein structures directly. Spiber will use microbial fermentation to produce the raw ingredients for Brewed Proteins at its Thai plant scheduled to start operation in 2021, and perform spinning at its Tsuruoka plant.

Thus far, it has been difficult to reduce the price of microbial-fermentation-produced synthetic proteins to below 100 US dollars per kilogram, but Sekiyama tells us that Spiber is now, “well below the 100-dollar level.” Spiber will continue its research on cost reduction after the Thai plant launches operations, and the market for synthetic proteins can be expected to grow dramatically if costs go below 50 US dollars per kilogram.

The cotton T-shirt launched with GOLDWIN this summer



Synthetic protein material development is attracting attention worldwide