Founder Oliver Shafaat is working to make a biodegradable fiber for apparel.
What made you so passionate about the topic of manufacturing biodegradable fibers?
I love the science of it. I am a nerd through and through, and there is an incredible amount of science that goes into making something as seemingly trivial as apparel fibers. Just synthetic clothing has about 100 years of chemistry, physics and engineering behind those high-performance properties we take for granted – strength, elasticity, water resistance and so on. Speaking as a chemist, that’s all incredibly exciting stuff. Unfortunately, creating, distributing, using and disposing of these products comes at an enormously heavy environmental and social cost. The question that I am trying to answer is: How can we take all that knowledge, and make a product that performs just like what we’re used to, but is better for the environment? It is not good enough to be just biodegradable. Biodegradability is a great start, but it also has to come from biobased, renewable, feedstock; deliver high performance; and be able to scale affordably. That’s what we really need. And it’s what is so exciting about Bylon: a truly circular apparel fiber that can be mass-produced, and that doesn’t ask brands and consumers to compromise on cost and performance. Plus, how cool would it be to have my mom, dad, sister and friends be able to wear clothes made from materials we developed?
What is it like to push this concept into reality?
Exhausting, daunting and fascinating all at the same time. This is my first time starting my own company, and it requires everything. The research, iterating on production, building the business: all of it to make something that’s never existed before, scale it and hopefully transform the world for the better. That’s a tall order. There is no safety net. But it’s honestly the greatest feeling to take an idea that came out of reading 1930s polymer chemistry papers at midnight, and actually make fibers that I can see and touch. Physically manifesting this concept has been incredibly rewarding.
Why is innovation in the clothing industry and innovation in the biotech industry so important?
Innovation in the apparel industry is important because it is such a massive industry. That means massive impact, from the hundreds of millions of tons of oil we use for synthetic fibers, to the land, water, pesticides and fertilizers we use to grow cotton. An article of clothing has an environmental impact throughout its entire lifecycle. Clothes are pollutive in their production, shed microfibers during normal use and wash cycles, and 85% of it ends up in landfills or incinerated – that’s about a garbage truck of apparel waste entering landfills per second. You can actually see a mountain of discarded clothes in the Atacama Desert from space now. We all need clothes. What we do not need is the entire planet to be covered in them. Something has to change.
Biotechnology is all about drawing from nature to design, engineer, and improve upon natural processes for social and industrial benefit. Nature has had billions of years to engineer amazing things, and as a result is a great source of inspiration. But nature has never tried to do some of the stuff we do to solve human problems. The scale of the impact of our innovations is far outpacing our ability to manage it. We need innovation in the biotech industry because combining the elegance of nature with the power of human ingenuity can help solve many of the problems facing the world. We are running out of time to do so.
As someone who has lived and worked outside the country, why is it so important for Oklahoma to place an emphasis on supporting innovation?
Supporting innovation will help Oklahoma adapt to meet the challenges of the future. Those challenges are increasingly urgent and complex. Innovation, underpinned by a healthy startup scene, will go a long way to ensuring Oklahoma continues to grow and thrive.
I have only lived in Oklahoma for two years. My impression when moving here was that Oklahoma would not be a good place to start my company. I now know that perspective was wrong. Oklahoma has amazing resources for companies like mine. I didn’t know anybody when I first arrived, but was automatically brought into the startup ecosystem, where I met partners like OCAST, gener8tor, The Verge, i2E, Cortado and so many others. These organizations are actively working hard to develop and grow the ecosystem, which is exciting to see, and to be a part of. Oklahoma also has what most innovation hubs don’t – low cost of living, lots of space, and affordable energy – not to mention a huge talent pool. For Sci-Lume Labs, Oklahoma is big enough to have all the resources that we need, and small enough for us to access them. I am excited to keep growing Sci-Lume Labs here in Oklahoma, and look forward to seeing other startups come here to take advantage of all it has to offer.
What is the future for Sci-Lume Labs? Now and in five years?
Currently, we are working to transition from lab-scale trials to making apparel yarns and textiles. It has been very exciting to scale up to this yarn production phase – a milestone for the science and the business. Yarns will enable us to partner with apparel brands, and begin developing textiles and garments. A core part of our growth strategy is constant evaluation of our environmental and social impact, at every stage of our product lifecycle.
In five years, we hope to have a well established, and environmentally positive, manufacturing platform for our yarns, and have products on the market globally. Additionally, we will continue our research to develop future materials and address other plastic form-factors.
Is there anything else about Sci-Lume Labs or you’d like to talk about?
Replacing incumbents with new products is challenging. What we are trying to do is bring the most disruptive apparel fiber technology possible to global scale, minus the typical difficulties of adopting new materials. I designed Bylon to be a true drop-in replacement. It fits into existing manufacturing facilities and supply chains. It combines the performance and energy efficiency of synthetic fibers with the circularity and comfort of natural fibers. Bylon is a solution that can work at the scale we need it—now. Alongside all the other new technologies working toward the same goal, Bylon can transform the apparel industry, and give the industry the time it needs to transition to a more environmentally sustainable model.
BIOTECH INNOVATOR FINALISTS: