Synthetic Protein Material Company Spiber Set for Global Expansion

Machine Translation: English
  • Name: Spiber
  • Country / Territory: Japan
  • IP right(s): Patents, Trademarks
  • Date of publication: July 4, 2022
  • Last update: July 7, 2022

Following the economic shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the apparel and textiles markets are once again showing strong growth. But increasing demand and production has highlighted the industries’ damaging environmental impact, from marine habitats choked with polyester microplastics to the greenhouse gas emissions from leather production. Now, a young biomaterials company is producing environmentally-conscious materials inspired by nature.

Spider silk: a promising material, but significant water shrinkage can be a problem

Spider silk is renowned as a lightweight, supple, yet incredibly tough material, up to seven times tougher than the synthetic aramid fibers used in bulletproof vests. The secret to its remarkable strength lies in the silk’s distinctive structure, in which repeated sequences of the amino acids alanine and glycine—in conjunction with other sequences—form a highly elastic and robust fiber.

On paper, spider silk sounds like a miracle material. But commercializing it has proved notoriously difficult. A single spider produces only small amounts of silk, and—in contrast to the placid domestic silk moth—the creature’s territorial and cannibalistic instincts make large-scale farming and breeding unfeasible. A widely used laboratory method for producing organic chemical materials, known as polypeptide synthesis, has also proved ineffective. Adding to these challenges, spider silk shrinks by 40% when it comes into contact with water, making it particularly ill-suited for use in clothing. Faced with such hurdles, several tech companies have already abandoned their research into spider silk.

Spiber, a venture company developing next-generation biomaterials

Despite these difficulties, biotechnologist Kazuhide Sekiyama is fascinated by the unique properties of spider silk and has dedicated himself to exploring its commercial potential. His initial breakthrough came in 2007, during the first year of his doctoral course at Keio University’s Institute for Advanced Biosciences, when he successfully created a small amount of spider silk synthetically.

Encouraged by this achievement, Sekiyama teamed up with his laboratory colleagues to found Spiber, a venture company that develops next-generation biomaterials. The fledgling company soon succeeded in raising funds for their promising and unique new technology. Sekiyama is now the Director and Representative Executive Officer at Spiber, which is headquartered in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture.

Spiber’s Brewed Protein polymer culturing facility in Tsuruoka, Yamagata
Spiber’s Brewed Protein polymer culturing facility in Tsuruoka, Yamagata. Source: Spiber

Creating various applications with Brewed Protein™ materials

Spiber’s Brewed Protein materials are produced by incorporating DNA tailored to suit desired properties or characteristics into microorganisms, which are then fermented through a proprietary process that utilizes plant-derived sugars. This approach transforms plant-based biomass into useful polymers that can be formed into a variety of products such as fibers, resin-like materials, leather-like materials, and more.

Spiber initially attempted to replicate the properties of natural spider silk, but the material’s tendency to shrink upon contact with water was not ideal for apparel applications. While the company continues researching spider silk for future initiatives, it currently focuses its energy on developing synthetic protein fibers for apparel use. Spiber has recently developed a new protein polymer that exhibits reduced shrinking by modifying amino acid sequences based on studies of natural protein materials such as spider silk, cashmere, and wool, and by cycling feedback and analyzing accumulated observations.

Filament threads made from a Brewed Protein polymer
Filament threads made from a Brewed Protein polymer. Source: Spiber

From delicate silk-like threads to high-quality cashmere, from warming wool-like spun yarn to animal-free fur and leather, Spiber’s Brewed Protein fabrics look and feel like the real thing. Besides clothing, Brewed Protein polymers can be used in a variety of applications, including resin-like materials such as tortoiseshell and horn, additives for next-generation lightweight composite materials, and even medical materials.

Expanding Spiber’s customer base and production

An item from Yuima Nakazato’s collection showcasing Brewed Protein fiber
An item from Yuima Nakazato’s collection showcasing Brewed Protein fiber. Source: Spiber

Due to high production costs, Spiber is currently targeting the high-grade materials market with Brewed Protein equivalents to cashmere, silk, and wool, among others. Products using Brewed Protein fibers have been sold by Spiber’s collaborator and sportswear manufacturer Goldwin as well as the Japanese fashion brand sacai. Brewed Protein materials has also been featured in collections by couture fashion designer Yuima Nakazato.

The company now aims to expand its customer base through polymer customization. Spiber's advanced polymer design technology can be applied not only to the apparel industry but also to transportation equipment, cosmetics, medical materials, food, and more. To supply this growing customer base, Spiber's first mass production plant in Thailand has begun operations in 2022 and will be brought to full capacity over several years, by which time the scale of polymer production is estimated to reach up to several hundred tons of protein per year. The company’s policy is to expand production bases with the aim of further scaling up polymer production while reducing costs and environmental impact. Spiber is also considering licensing to overseas partners in order to support future overseas expansion.

Raising funds with high-value intellectual property

Due to Spiber’s limited production scale, profits are currently restricted to sales from small shipments of materials and contract money paid by business partners. Together with the company’s emphasis on research and development (R&D), this means that the settlement of accounts continues to be in the red. Nevertheless, the company’s abundance of R&D funds reflects the stable increase in corporate value centered on Spiber’s intellectual property (IP). According to estimates by The Nikkei financial newspaper, the company’s corporate value as of September 2021 was JPY 131.2 billion, or USD 1.0 billion.

Consolidated performance trends of Spiber
Consolidated performance trends of Spiber. Source: Spiber Securities Report

Spiber has employed several methods to increase its corporate value. Until 2018, the company primarily raised funds by increasing capital, with almost no financing by borrowing. By 2018, the cumulative amount of capital raised through third-party allotment exceeded JPY 20 billion (USD 156 million), and the company now has a reasonable number of existing shareholders.

Spiber’s funding record
Spiber’s funding record. Source: Spiber News Release

Since 2019, the company has increased its options for raising funds. In 2019, it garnered JPY 6.5 billion (USD 50 million) through syndicated loans and leasing. In 2020, Spiber adopted business value securitization and succeeded in raising JPY 40 billion (USD 311 million) by the end of 2021. With prospects for raising further funds for commercialization leveling off, in September 2021 a new capital increase of JPY 24.4 billion (USD 190 million) was announced through a third-party allotment.

Business value securitization is a new method of financing backed by Spiber’s patents, and is considered to be the first of its kind in Japan. Financing is one of the most difficult issues for venture companies that are in deficit due to R&D investment, but Spiber’s successful raising of JPY 40 billion blazes a trail for other Japanese companies with high-value IP such as patents. Spiber plans to continue investing in high-level R&D moving forward, but its policy is to use equity and borrowing in a balanced manner.

Developing a strong IP strategy

IP has clearly been fundamental to Spiber’s development and will remain so in the future. Until 2014, limited funds meant that Spiber had fewer than five patent applications. This number increased sharply in 2015, when large-scale financing was successful, and Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) international applications can now be filed as needed. Since 2018, the company has applied for more than 60 patents annually. Spiber’s patent applications show that it is a company aiming to establish itself as a platformer with a broad range of products and services including textiles, pharmaceuticals, DNA synthesis, and materials informatics.

Spiber’s patented technology area. Source: Created by Shobayashi International Patent and Trademark Office based on Orbit
Spiber’s patented technology area. Source: Created by Shobayashi International Patent and Trademark Office based on Orbit

The company has had to overcome some challenges in order to protect its IP. Notably, it has proved difficult to acquire substance patents for its Brewed Protein materials as highly polymerized compounds. The company is therefore proactively seeking patents for the production process technologies using various plant-derived raw materials which—alongside their DNA synthesis technology—are essential for creating Brewed Protein materials. In this way, Spiber is building a system to prepare for the claim of rights when it develops future materials.

As Spiber sets the stage for international expansion, it will continue to rely on the PCT. Indeed, most patents filed by Japanese companies have been filed internationally using the PCT, ultimately allowing them to patent their inventions in other countries. Securing patents not only in Japan but around the world has made large-scale IP financing possible.

Spiber's patent attention and filing status
Spiber's patent attention and filing status. Source: Created by Shobayashi International Patent and Trademark Office based on Orbit

Towards a more ethical and responsible future

Spiber’s ability to produce animal-free fur and leather offers an ethical alternative to traditional materials. Moreover, Brewed Protein polymer production is expected to release less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than traditional animal fibers such as cashmere. Additionally, Brewed Protein materials’ lack of reliance on petroleum as a primary raw material means that they do not break down into the sort of persistent, environmentally-harmful microplastics commonly associated with other synthetic fibers.

The drive to reduce environmental impact has guided Sekiyama since he founded Spiber in 2007. The company maintains a dedicated sustainability team which focuses on developing environmentally-responsible material manufacturing processes and business structures. In the near future, the company hopes to publish the results of its life cycle assessment after the completion of ongoing evaluations by a third party. Spiber’s vision is to provide materials that help solve environmental and social issues across a wide range of major global industries.