Anatomy of Next: Dan Widmaier // Material Advance, Part One

  • What does Bolt Threads do? Bolt Threads makes materials from nature that are high performance and hard to extract. We develop technology that makes the production of these materials possible. 

  • We use genetic engineering to make products: An example is turning yeast into spider silk factories. All yeast comes from old yeast. We take a current strain of yeast and add the DNA of a spider. The yeast now produces the protein of interest at scale. Spider silk is higher performance [and better] than anything we can make from a barrel of oil. Given the right conditions the yeast will duplicate themselves every 4 hours. You get exponential growth.

  • The broader idea: Before we go reinventing the world, let’s take a careful look at what already exists [in nature].

  • Biology shows us what is possible. We are never chasing something impossible because biology already solved the problem: That is a totally different way to think about what materials can be developed. You don’t have to go figure out what is possible. The world tells you what is possible. Now we figure out how to make it work.

  • The massive advantage of biology as a manufacturing technology: There has been 3.5 billion years of life spreading to every niche of the environment. No matter how extreme. To survive in those extremes organisms will evolve a material to solve a problem. Spider silk is one example. The adhesives barnacles use to attach themselves to a ship is another example. Each has a performance niche that evolution adapted in to.

  • The size of this opportunity: Start looking around nature. Take 3.5 billion years of evolution + untold number of organisms on this planet + tens of thousands of proteins [each organism] has in their genome. Start putting all of these together in different ways. You’ll find functionalities that are sub-components of evolved functionalities. This produces stuff like adhesives, elastomers, high strength fibers, and very hard solids.

  • The thing that fascinates me about materials: When you look at global infrastructure over the whole span of human civilization the blocks we have to work with are gated by the materials we have access to. Every age of man is named with a material. The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, The Information Age etc... This entire paradigm shifts when you think about biology as a source of new materials for the manufacturing process.

  • Proof does a lot for people: Look at companies. When one company proves something is possible all of a sudden a lot of other people figure out how to do it. 

  • What did you do before starting the company? I was trained as a chemist and chemical biologist. I spent 10 to 12 years as a molecular biologist. 

  • Why did you start applying these technologies to consumer apparel?Consumer apparel is not heavy lifting. It allows us to take the heavy lifting of doing something new, [manufacturing biology] and bring that part to maturity. We don’t want to bite off too many problems at once. Companies get themselves in real trouble when they try to do too many things at once.

  • Full podcast here.