When you think of green, climate-conscious industries, you’d be forgiven for not having fashion at the top of your list. Rubi Laboratories wants to take that up a notch by creating new, more environmentally friendly substances. The company does this by waste CO . to catch2 and the creation of natural textiles, bypassing agriculture and manufacturing. The company claims it is carbon negative, water neutral and naturally biodegradable.
Not a moment too soon either: the fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and shipping combined, accounting for about 10% of greenhouse gases per year, the BBC reports. While making the industry greener is commendable, I’d say the problem may well be with the fashion industry itself; in a world where a piece of clothing is worn an average of seven times before being thrown away, it seems like the “reduce, reuse, recycleThe greener living mantra falls short on all three counts when it comes to fashion. Still; people go people, fashion won’t go away anytime soon, and maybe it’s better for a piece of clothing worn twice to rot and fade from memory faster in a landfill than slower.
Against that backdrop, Rubi Laboratories is waving a green flag over the “carbon negative cellulose textile” industry. The company, founded by the nieces of fashion brand founder Bebe (with a market cap north of $100 million as I write this), announced it had raised a $4.5 million seed funding round from Talis Capital and Necessary Ventures. , and a handful of additional institutional investors (the company’s press release lists Climatic, Collaborative Fund, Plug and Play, Incite Ventures, Darco Capital, Cayuse Partners, Axial VC, Climate Capital Collective and CapitalX) and a slew of angel investors (including James Reinhart, CEO and founder of thredUP; Manny Mashouf, CEO and founder of Bebe Stores; Nicolaj Reffstrup, founder of GANNI; Alexander Lorestani, CEO and co-founder of Geltor; and Rei Wang, co-founder of The Grand and former CEO of Dorm Room Fund). In addition, the funding round also includes a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
A giant leap in technology
“I have always been passionate about sustainability and climate. When we started Rubi, it all just clicked together. From the age of 15, I published my first paper on artificial photosynthesis at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab,” explains Neeka Mashouf, CEO of Rubi Laboratories. “Since then, I’ve been really focused on research into sustainable materials. I studied materials science and business administration at UC Berkeley, then immersed myself in building companies around sustainability.”
For Rubi Labs, the duo developed technologies and filed a number of patents. The first product is a cell-free biocatalytic process that resulted in viscose – also known as Rayon – the third most widely used textile fiber in the world. It is used as a cheaper and more durable alternative to silk and synthetic velvet. It is usually made by taking wood pulp, dissolving it in chemicals and spinning it into fibers that can be turned into threads. Threads make fabrics, fabrics make clothes, you get the idea.
“I found that I really wanted to understand the biological systems that evolved to build carbon-based life, and how to take inspiration from nature and develop intelligent biology systems that could solve human problems that evolution itself doesn’t necessarily solve. also worked in bioengineering research labs since I was about 15, leading projects from ideation and execution and transfer to clinical trials, mostly aimed at solving one of the perhaps most difficult diseases in medicine to treat: brain cancer,” says Leila Mashouf, CTO at Rubi Laboratories.”And that work led me to medical school at Harvard Medical School, where I was exposed to so many different speakers coming in, who talked a lot about climate change and the threat to human health that climate change posed.” .”
To achieve his goals, Rubi captures CO. on2 from the waste streams of production facilities using its own enzyme system. It is able to absorb CO. capture and convert2 of a gas input at any concentration.
“What’s exciting is that our technology is actually very flexible in terms of the source of CO2† We have tested and proven that it can work even with direct air capture, which is very low CO. levels2”, explains Laila Mashouf. She adds that it makes even more sense to use CO. to catch2 from sources directly related to textile production. “We like to use concentrated sources of CO2such as flue gas from a factory or an industrial source.”
Once captured from any source, CO2 is then converted into cellulose, which can then be used to make viscose-based yarn. By using enzymes as a catalyst, Rubi claims it makes 100% of CO. can convert2 input into the reactors into a final product, all without waste. If at some point the company is able to replace all the viscose used in the fashion industry, the product will also be widely used in other industries, such as car tires, food, packaging and construction materials.
As mentioned, the company has raised $4.5 million, which is largely earmarked for developing the product from concept and sample scale to launch commercialization.
“We were really looking for investors who could see this sustainable symbiotic future that we envision, who were willing to take the risks that are part of the journey, and who believe in us as founders. I think we really found that in our investors,” says Neeka Mashouf. “We have found such visionary, inspiring and supportive investors as Talis and Necessary Ventures. I think it’s the perfect team to make this happen.”
From an investor’s point of view, Talis saw a huge opportunity to shake up the textile industry.
“If We Think About Where” [Talis Capital] likes to invest, materials were always a big one. In the next decade, we really need to rethink everything around us, from chemicals to construction materials to packaging. Textiles are also one of them. I have spent a lot of time in the fashion world and we are well aware of the problem the industry has from a supply chain perspective. What we really liked about Rubi was that when we look at the textile space, there’s cotton as the most commonly used material, but it’s really hard to recreate that with synthetic biology. Then there’s polyester, which is a great material, but it’s a type of plastic and a fossil fuel-based material,” explains Cecilia Manduca, associate at Talis Capital. “And then finally there is viscose, the third largest material. It comes from natural base materials but has many production problems. But if you can clean those up, you can have a huge impact in space. We started looking there, and we thought it looked nice from a return potential and impact perspective. We found Rubi and we love their CO2 approach. It fits perfectly.”
I’m far from being a skeptic of someone trying to do some good in green technology – every little bit helps – but I do note that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a relatively small round with so many institutional and angel investors on the cap table, especially from a series of founders as connected to the wealthy universe of fashion as Neeka and Leila Mashouf. I tried to understand and asked Talis Capital what the deal was. “It’s a family business, but it’s not their family business,” explains Manduca, who co-led the deal on the deal with one of the company’s partners. A somewhat curious note, given that the headline on the press release Talis Capital sent me referred to the founders as “Bebe Stores heirs.”
Queuing for launch
Rubi’s first textile samples are expected to be available in February 2022. Rubi has validated its technology by creating a successful prototype and claims it has developed test plans with numerous leading global retail and fashion brands. Rubi is also in talks with several multinational energy and manufacturing companies to reduce CO. to deliver2 scale up production.
For now, the company is targeting the fashion industry as the product has quite a high price compared to the existing fabrics available; but as technology improves and scale increases, the company hopes to lower prices as well.
“Our goal is to achieve price parity with standard viscose. That really unlocks [our product], because viscose is a widely used material, both in fast fashion and in more luxurious designer fashion,” explains Neeka Mashouf. “By being able to be price competitive with the standard textiles on the market, the playing field has been leveled.”
“Our vision is a world where human prosperity and economic growth are positive for the planet. And we really see this technology achieving that vision by being a platform technology,” says Neeka Mashouf. “We are rethinking the way we produce materials, starting with textiles, but also extending it to other things, such as building materials, packaging, food and much more. We can achieve this vision that is symbiotic with the planet using CO2 to make critical materials in a way that is water and land neutral, chemically neutral and in symbiosis with the planet.”