Rethinking Circular Economy in Colour – An Interview with Colorifix
ClearlySo's Jon Wright delves deeper into circular economy this week as he interviews Chief Operating Officer of Colorifix, a company borrowing from nature to grow colour, eliminating the use of chemicals from the dyeing process.
There is no better example of a zero waste, closed loop system than nature. After all Mother Nature has had over 3bn years of evolutionary awesomeness over humanity.
In a blog post for last year’s circular economy week I touched on biomimicry, the fascinating study of nature’s design to create innovations addressing global challenges. Examples exist in how we build, communicate, grow, heal, power and travel.
Source: Van Oorschot, M. et al. The contribution of sustainable trade to the conservation of natural capital: The effects of certifying tropical resource production on public and private benefits of ecosystem services. (PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, The Hague, Netherlands, 2016)
Earlier this week, I caught up with Chris Hunter, Chief Operating Officer at Colorifix, a company that has come up with a radically different dyeing process using synthetic biology, which eliminates the use of chemicals and significantly reduces the amount of water used in textile manufacturers supplying the multi-trillion dollar fashion industry, amongst others.
Chris, thanks for joining me. Lab grown colours, wow(!) can you briefly tell me how it works?
Thanks for the invitation, Jon. So, in summary we have developed the first entirely biological dyeing process, and by that I mean starting with how we produce pigments through to how we fix them onto textiles. We take our inspiration from the natural world, but rather than having to harm a living thing such as a plant or an animal, we like to say we borrow from nature. This means that we can find any colour that we like in its natural context and then DNA sequence whatever it belongs to in order that we can understand what encodes it to make that colour; actually, in a lot of cases, we can even get the information from publicly available databases, as a lot of things have already been DNA sequenced. Either way, we then just select and optimise the set of genes responsible for the colour, known as the pathway, and from there we can make hundreds of variants of that colour. We then insert the genes into an engineered microorganism and ferment them much like how beer is brewed but in this case, we are growing colour. The great thing is that they only require sugar and nitrogen as inputs so the feedstock can even be sugar molasses, which is a waste by-product of the sugar production process and is therefore widely available worldwide. Then, what’s most exciting is that rather than having to extract the compound of interest, in this case, the pigment, from the microorganism, which is typically where most of the cost lies in biotech-related processes, we instead harvest the live culture and place it into regular dyeing infrastructure in place of the synthetic dyes. We then add one non-toxic, renewable additive and the microorganisms do the rest – they transfer and fix the colour for us – at significantly lower temperatures than normal dyeing and with a lot less water. At the end, we briefly raise the temperature, which kills off the microorganisms and releases any residual colour they contain along with natural salts that catalyse our process in place of all of the auxiliary chemicals that normally get used.
What milestones have you achieved to date?
On the colour development front we have grown our library of pigments from 4 to 30 over the past year. This is significant as it means that we now have most of the colours required to respond to the needs of clients as we can also mix the colours. On the IP front, our patent protects the process of using the microorganisms to transfer the colour and has already proceeded to the approval stages in the key geographies where we are currently most active. On the customer acquisition front, we are already working on first collections with several of the world’s leading brands across luxury, premium retail and sports. Of course, all of this is enabled by having an exceptionally talented and motivated team, which has grown in size from 4 to 20 over the past 18 months and spans R&D, labtech, business development, administration and operations.
How has the industry responded during your market research and when will this technology reach consumers?
The reception has been extraordinary and I think that this is due a confluence of factors. First, there is the backdrop and as we all know timing is very important. Environmental consciousness from consumers has massively increased and there has been a particular focus on the devastating effects of the fashion industry in recent times. Dyeing is a huge part of this problem, contributing to approximately 20% of global industrial water pollution. This is leading brands and their suppliers to be more open to rethinking how they do things, which is striking in an industry that hasn’t changed much in decades. That said, when there has been sustained inertia, you have to come with something compelling to get people engaged. In our case, we can offer them vast environmental improvements, whilst still meeting quality and price requirements, and if you can’t do all three, you aren’t going to get take-up or have a scalable solution. There was also good relationship building in the early stages and we took part in the Fashion for Good accelerator in Amsterdam and won the coveted Andam Fashion Innovation Award. This has made customer acquisition a lot easier as there has been a lot of inbound interest. The first collections will hit shelves next year.
Have you come up against any notable limitations or challenges you can share?
The main issue has been onboarding suppliers as quickly as we would like. This is not due to a lack of interest or excitement but rather because we are doing something radically different to what they are used to so when getting the first wave of early-adopters onboard, there is naturally some apprehension and therefore a longer lead time to getting people comfortable and ultimately sold on the idea. There is also a licensing process to go through with governments, which should in theory take 1-2 months but again, until this is more established in this particular industry, things will take a little bit longer. We’ve responded by adapting our own team and bringing in specialists who will lead on aspects of the implementation process such as GM licensing and fermentation, which are completely foreign concepts to our customers. Now that we have this resource in place internally, along with newly-licensed dye houses coming on stream which we can signpost people to, we can start to pick up the pace of customer conversion. Something that hasn’t been a challenge which I thought might find more resistance at the outset is the use of GMOs. However, the reason for that is that we have a GM process but not a GM product and indeed the class of GMO we are using has been safely used in industry for decades in the production of insulin, amongst other things.
How does the performance compare, would the colours run in a washing cycle, for example?
As mentioned, this is a key point for us. Colour fastness is the crucial measure of performance and is where a lot of natural and eco-friendly solutions fall down. There are a number of different sub categories here such as wash fastness, which you referenced in your question, as well as rub, perspiration and light fastness. On the first three, we have been scoring in the same range as synthetics in independently certified tests. With light-fastness, it is different in that it is pigment-dependent, rather than process-dependent, so there is some variance amongst the colours. This means that there is still some work to do, though it is also fair to say that our baseline is already on a much higher level than most other environmentally friendly dyes.
What is the price point to your customers vs less sustainable, traditional methods?
Our product is already cost-competitive with synthetic dyes at low volumes and will enjoy economies of scale. Importantly, we don’t require any fancy new machinery or capex of any kind unless customers choose to in-house their fermentation to create future cost savings. We plug in to existing dyeing infrastructure and with some basic training we can get plant operators going with our tech within days. We recognise that in order to be a business that moves the dial in this industry we need to be financially and socially sustainable (i.e. not displacing jobs) as well as bringing the obvious environmental benefits.
You’re an impact investor by background, how important is impact to the wider team?
Impact is front and centre and that’s because the founding directors originally came at this from trying to solve the effect of the dyeing industry on the environment. It started back in 2012 when they were working on a biosensor project in Nepal for the detection of arsenic contamination in groundwater and the more they looked into the sources of chemical pollution, the more roads led back to the textile industry. So, they then changed their focus to addressing the main cause of the problem itself and the company was born. There’s no question that everyone on the team is highly motivated by this mission, me included, but equally we all agree with the directors that the environmental, financial and social impact need to move together in order for this to help change an industry on a large-scale, which is our intention here.
As for my background, you guys know me as an impact investor and indeed I came into Colorifix via an operating partner role with the lead investor, Sagana. That said, the overall balance of my experience is actually tilted more towards the operating side and that is only going to increase now as we’re only getting started here. I will however continue to support the brilliant Sagana team as a venture partner on origination and UK network development.
For better or worse, how has the COVID pandemic affected your business?
The most immediate thing that it interrupted was our industrial pilots, and that in turn made us change our fundraising strategy. We were initiating a £10m equity raise at the end of Q1 and we had great traction but we also realised that COVID was going to prevent certain key milestones from happening on time and we didn’t want to go there. So, instead, we are in the process of closing a bridging round that will see us through the next 18 months.
Clearly, the industry we are focused on has been very badly affected and this will have some knock-on effects for us too mainly in the form of delays. Overall, though, we have been hugely encouraged by the fact that not one of our industrial partners has put things on hold and this is testament to what I said about offering a truly sustainable solution. Indeed, as we’ve seen in the past downturns, it is times like these that tend to root out the businesses that are uncompetitive and we need to take advantage of that.
I think that it is also worth mentioning the fact that consumers want the environment top of the agenda as things get rebuilt and rethought post COVID, as evidenced by recent polls, so it isn’t just going to fall away again like it has in the past in terms of people’s priorities. We feel a responsibility to play our part in facilitating this.
Finally, some of our pigments have anti-viral properties so we are working on a special project which could mean that we can help in the fight against COVID but I can’t say much more on that right now.
How does the next 12 months – 5 years look for you?
Well, the most immediate thing is getting our industrial pilots back underway so that we can move towards scaling things with our key brand partners such as H&M in 2021. We are also building a demonstrator dye facility in Cambridge, which is part-funded by an H2020 grant, and we want this operational by later this year. The intention of the Cambridge site is not to get to a big production scale as our model is fundamentally a licensing play – the point is to show others how it should be done. Taking a five-year view, we aim to have established the new standard for environmentally-friendly dyeing in the industry. Anything short of that wouldn’t be what the founders set out to achieve and nor would it be what the rest of us have signed up to.
Thank you for sharing your insights with us.
Researchers suggest that bio-inspired innovations could generate US$1.6trn of GDP worldwide by 2030. However, the prize for protecting biodiversity is much greater – not least because our lives depend on it, but all economic activity ultimately depends on services provided by nature, estimated to be worth around US$125 trillion a year.
If there is one take away from the COVID-19 pandemic it is the lesson of how deeply interconnected we are with nature and we should abuse that at our peril. It is so very sad to hear our global leaders refer to a ‘war’ with nature when in fact she provides all the solutions.