For months, the BoltThreads.com website offered little more than a short message: “Our team is hard at work engineering the next generation of high-performance fibers. We can’t wait to tell you more, but the lawyers say we’ve got to contain our enthusiasm for just a little longer.”
Here’s why the company founded in 2009 by Dan Widmaier, Ethan Mirsky, and David Breslauer makes for such a compelling story: Since the 1990s, some of the biggest names in materials science had been trying to develop super strong and lightweight fibers, inspired by spider silk, that could be manufactured on demand. After years of research, Bolt Threads has done it – and is ready to do it on a commercial scale.
As a former product designer at IDEO, I’ve long been interested in doing new things with new materials. I fondly remember IDEO’s fastidiously curated “Tech Box,” which was packed full of intriguing materials meant to inspire creativity – like “shape memory alloys” that twist and turn with changes in temperature, or the crazy composite material used to insulate the space shuttle on re-entry. I also had a thing for the ability of magneto rheological fluids to enable dynamic damping coefficients for linear actuators, but I digress.
Figure 1: The IDEO Tech Box. http://www.ideo.com/work/tech-box/
When I first started studying its properties, spider silk seemed like something right out of the Tech Box. It’s stronger and lighter than steel, and incredibly flexible. Developing the new science required to manufacture it, however, would be a huge challenge. I went on the hunt for the perfect combination of talented researchers and dedicated entrepreneurs.
Two years later, an article in the MIT Technology Review and a cold email to Dan Widmaier brought me to the most hopeful point on my search. Take a look; I even still have that email. (FYI, Bolt Threads was originally called Refactored Materials.)
The next day, Dan wrote back, and soon enough I was on my way to their lab at UCSF Mission Bay. There, the team showed me their giant Nephila spiders and gave me a window into their approach. They were still deep in their research phase back then. (Now, with their Engineered Silk technology, actual spiders are no longer required.) Even back then, I was impressed.
Figure 2: A Nephila spider in the UCSF incubator lab. Photo Credit: Steve Vassallo with his iPhone in 2010
This was the first team of silk researchers I’d met who dismissed all the bluster and instead talked in terms of stress-strain diagrams. They understood intuitively that actual hard metrics needed to be proved before it would ever make sense to shout about it from the rooftops.
I’m proud to say that day has come, and I’m excited for what’s in store – not just for Bolt Threads, but for the industry it’s poised to disrupt.
First, there’s the material properties: stronger, lighter, more durable, and extraordinarily tunable across a wide range of features consumers seek.
Second, there’s the sustainability benefits. While more than 60 percent of textiles today are made from petroleum products, Bolt Threads’ Engineered Silk is made from protein. And whereas resource-intensive textiles like cotton and silk require land, water, and other inputs, Bolt Threads can turn raw ingredients – sugar, water, and yeast – into raw fibers and industry-best performance fabrics, all under the same roof.
Third, there’s the team behind it all that harnesses this rare combination of mesmerizing technology with incredibly skilled leadership and execution.
That is the potential Foundation Capital saw when we led the Series A in 2011 with a $4 million investment and recruited Jerry Fiddler – Chairman of Solazyme, the first company to make commercial quantities of oil using algae – to join the board as an independent director. I have to tip my hat to Sue Levin, who was one of our key market diligence resources for that round, who called the Bolt Threads founders, her “spider guys,” and who now serves as Bolt Threads’ Chief Marketing Officer.
Three years later, we led the Series B funding. By that point, Bolt Threads was producing significant quantities of fiber. With the actual material in hand, we were able to bring on board a slate of new investors who were impressed with both the beauty of the technology and the strength of the Bolt Threads team.
Today, Bolt Threads is well on its way to launching their first consumer products with Engineered Silk. On behalf of everyone here at Foundation Capital, I congratulate Dan, David, Ethan and the team on the work they’ve done thus far. Success is rarely a bolt from out the blue, but thanks to their talent and tenacity, we think the world is ready to pick up the thread.