Werewool’s Bio-Fabrics: A Colorful Solution to Textile Pollution

As a student of textiles development at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), Werewool cofounder Chui-Lian Lee knew better than most that color is one of the first things we notice about a garment. In the course of her studies, she also became painfully aware of the huge environmental impact of dyeing fabrics, an often overlooked aspect of an industry that already has a pretty bad reputation when it comes to sustainability. Dyeing is incredibly water-intensive, requiring as much as 200 tons of water per ton of fabric, and generates significant pollution from residual dyes and ‘finishing’ chemicals. This pollution ends up in surrounding water sources, exacerbating environmental degradation. Additionally, the carbon emissions from producing synthetic dyes from petrochemicals add another layer of environmental harm.

Enter Werewool, a startup created by Lee and fellow FIT student Valentina Gomez. Werewool aims to revolutionize the textile industry by engineering microbes to express proteins originally found in coral and other living sources that are inherently colorful. These proteins are then combined with biopolymers to create fabrics in various shades that don’t require dyeing. AgFunderNews (AFN) caught up with Chui-Lian Lee at the SynBioBeta conference in San Jose to discuss the genesis and evolution of her biomaterials startup.

AFN: What sparked your interest in biomaterials?
CL: I was studying textile development and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and during my time there I started to see the environmentally detrimental impact of the industry at every level of the supply chain. While studying there, I met my cofounder Valentina Gomez, who grew up in a manufacturing environment as her family ran denim mills. As part of the course, we went to India to look at the textile industry and when we landed in New Delhi, I just remember there was an immense amount of smog coming from crop burning. It was just shocking to me, coming from New York, to experience that, and terrifying at the same time. It felt almost apocalyptic. We toured the golden triangle where a lot of textile manufacturing takes place and saw firsthand a lot of the water pollution and the poor working conditions. So returning to the US and going back to my final semester, I took the biodesign challenge [a program to introduce students to the intersection of biotechnology, art, and design that FIT participated in] and was introduced to biotechnology. That year [2018] Stella McCartney proposed this challenge to find an animal-free wool, and so of course, coming from a fashion background, we [Valentina and I] were like, yes! That’s the challenge we want to tackle!

AFN: What happened next?
CL: We started looking into self-assembling proteins and it was through this process that we discovered that proteins are more than just building blocks. They have this amazing functionality. There was a moment when one of our mentors showed me this vial of red fluorescent proteins and it blew my mind. It was a spark that sent me down this rabbit hole. What else can proteins do? Can they do this? Can they do that? Can we replace PFAs [a group of synthetic chemicals widely used in consumer products], or can we replace this plastic that’s used in that fabric? Biotechnology just presented itself to me as a holistic solution to a lot of the problems that we’re facing in the textile industry.

AFN: How did you focus your research?
CL: We started asking: can we use these proteins to make performance fibers or fibers with color? We also met with Dr. David Breslauer from [biomaterials startup] Bolt Threads, and he imparted a lot of wisdom that made us rethink how we were thinking about our materials and how we needed to make sure that we can reach price parity. So then we started thinking, okay, how can we functionalize existing biopolymers so that we’re not using a large concentration of [expensive] recombinant proteins to make functional materials? Initially, we were working in a kitchen lab in Long Island City out of someone’s apartment, and then we got a little bit of funding that allowed us to move into Helen Lu and Allie Obermeyer’s lab in biomedical and chemical engineering at Columbia University.

AFN: What exactly is Werewool making?
CL: [Using precision fermentation and engineered bacteria] we initially replicated a red fluorescent protein that can be found in Discosoma coral. Our team has subsequently modified this protein structure to enable it to enzymatically cross-link with the proteins in our base fiber composition and be more stable to the high heat it would need to withstand in downstream textile processing conditions. So to make our colored fibers, we take plant-based proteins, which we denature; we add some polysaccharides; and we use an enzyme to functionalize [crosslink] them with our [colorful] designer proteins. The enzyme targets amino acids on our designer protein

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