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that the spider silk proteins reinforce the silkworm fiber like rebar in concrete. “With a small percentage of spider silk proteins, the result is a dramatic increase in strength, flexibility, and energy absorption levels,” he explains.
Kraig Labs—which has two employees, Thompson and his office manager—was founded in 2006 and is based on technology developed at the University of Wyoming (more on that below); the company went public on the OTC markets two years later. Kraig Labs currently has partnerships with scientists at the University of Notre Dame for research and development.
The biotech firm is currently working with Warwick Mills, a New Hampshire materials company, to produce what it calls its “Monster Silk” fabric. Warwick Mills produces high-tech textiles for military, law enforcement, fire department, and other specialty uses. “We are ramping up for commercial scale now,” with plans to be on the market next year, Thompson says.
To boost the company’s infrastructure in order to mass produce its silk, Kraig Labs is in negotations with the government of Vietnam to set up a production facility there could help alleviate that bottleneck. “Vietnam has a large idle capacity for silkworm production—and they have substantial expertise,” he says.
Along with Entogenetics and Kraig Labs, there are a handful of other companies in various stages of producing spider silk using myriad techniques. AMSilk, which is based near Munich, Germany, is trying to develop commercially scalable spider silk through a process that makes spider silk proteins with genetically altered E. coli bacteria; the relevant spider genes are inserted into the bacteria, which are grown in fermenters. The proteins are then spun to make silk fibers. AMSilk currently sells its silk proteins for use in shampoos and cosmetics and is developing products for wound care and other surgical needs, according to its website.
Meanwhile, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST) is working with a Japanese startup called Spiber to also develop spider silk through an E. coli fermenting process. Spiber has so far raised $8 million from Japanese investment banks and plans to open a pilot facility next year.
But Randy Lewis has perhaps been after the spider-silk holy grail the longest—and he has what must be the most unusual approach. In 1990, he was part of a team at the University of Wyoming that cloned spider genes related to silk production. His research found its way into a few startups including Nexia Biotechnologies, based in Quebec, Canada. The company attempted to breed “spidergoats”—goats that were altered with spider genes in order to produce the silk proteins in the animals’ milk. In 2006, Nexia was acquired by Canadian oilfield services company Enseco Energy Services in a reverse merger transaction. Lewis says Enseco was uninterested in the spider silk project.
Lewis’s research at Wyoming lives on … Next Page »