Some have an office dog. Bolt Threads used to have office spiders.
Why? Because David Breslauer and his fellow co-founders believed that synthetic silk inspired by spider silk could turn the textile industry on its head. And they’re on their way to proving it.
David, Bolt Thread’s Chief Scientific Officer, sat down with us at SXSW earlier this month during the most recent edition of our Product Minds series. Born in the laboratories of two California universities, Bolt Threads is leading the way in developing alternative forms of silk. The new fibers can be stretchier than spandex, stronger than steel, or softer than wool—depending on how you tune the properties during the manufacturing process.
Our Steve Vassallo and Erik Torenberg, a founding member of Product Hunt, sat down to interview David. Their conversation focused on what it takes to bring a technology out of a lab and into a marketplace of your own creation.
Erik Torenberg: Well David, we have a lot that we’re going to get into today—or should I say crawl into. But first, spin us the original story. I understand that you guys were in an academic research facility, and there were spiders hanging from the ceiling. How exactly does that turn into Bolt Threads?
David Breslauer: It wasn’t just the ceiling, Erik. The spiders were hanging from everywhere. I was at Berkeley doing my Ph.D. in bioengineering and Dan, my cofounder, was over at UCSF working chemical biology. I got into it because it just seemed like a really cool problem. How do these organisms turn proteins into fibers so easily? Dan got into it because he was interested in how to make a scalable method of generating the proteins themselves. I had the unfortunate problem of needing the protein to continue my research, and he said that he could make the protein. We met and started talking, and it kind of went from there.
ET: Sounds like a collaboration waiting to happen. Thinking back, can you tell us the first moment when the spider silk itself became a fascination?
DB: It’s important to know that neither Dan nor I initially focused on silk when we began our thesis projects. It was more of a side aspect. It sounded cool. But before we knew it, the silk part became so much more engaging. People have long been trying to figure out how to make silk without spiders or silkworms, while still achieving all of the desirable properties.
ET: And what are these types of properties? Fill us in on that because I can’t say I know much about the properties of spider silk.
DB: Alright, so picture a spider’s web for me. That web has three types of silk in it. Spiders actually make six to seven different kinds of silk in total. They have all sorts of properties from spandex type silk, to extremely soft and extremely strong silk, the ones you commonly hear about. And after playing around with it for some time, we thought that we knew enough to make our own protein silk, in a way that was scalable and cost competitive. We realized we could build a business model around it that could actually grow into a company.
ET: So when it comes down to it, you two are scientists who created a business out of your studies. That doesn’t happen every day. Could you talk more about how this became your reality, and what had to happen in terms of funding?
DB: We were looking at the properties of a spider’s web, and thinking that we could use it as a general template to figure out how to make proteins that make unique fibers, which in turn make interesting properties to use in creating goods. Following that idea, we developed the technology platform in a way that’s not just intended to make one type of silk, but actually make many different types of materials. It’s very much a custom engineered platform that can make a variety of products.
Historically, everyone thinks of technical textiles when they think of spider silk. Over time, we really evolved into seeing consumer products and consumer apparel as a way that we could improve everyone’s lives, from a product perspective, and do some really cool things. We started operations in 2010, and we knew very little about venture capital or the tech industry. We were phenomenally helped by the fact that Berkeley and UCSF had resources in the area that allowed us to talk to venture capitalists and learn about both venture capital and biotech. At that point we were simply trying to soak everything up and talk to as many people as possible.
ET: And funding-wise, did you use research grants, or have early investors, or take advantage of life savings?
DB: Funding-wise, we were fortunate. The government has a lot of good innovation grants for deep tech and deep science, and they are willing to use their grant funding mechanisms to try and spur off small businesses. So in 2009, once we got some grants, we started playing around with business models until we found one that made sense.
ET: Let’s talk about the beginning, David. All of us in this room know that starting a new project of this scale is no easy task. Were you hearing a lot of rejection in the beginning? Most people hear a lot of “no” at first. Or were people interested right away?
DB: We didn’t start pitching right away because we had the government grants. But then we met Steve and quickly formed a relationship with Foundation Capital. That was really our first round, and I feel very grateful to Foundation Capital for how it all turned out.
Prior to that, we talked to a lot of people and received a lot of rejections. A lot of people were skittish and said to come back to them in the future. Much of the problem was that people have a tough time understanding where we fit within the industries. However, I think we now have a great group of investors who saw a team, saw a vision, and saw a technology that was progressing and capable of making some impressive products in a growing market. They decided to take a leap and treat it like a venture.
ET: Since 2010, a lot of your work in building Bolt has taken place in stealth—that is, you’ve been quiet about your progress. Could you talk a bit about the evolution of your stealth strategy and why you stayed in it for such a long time. How did you decide when to come out of stealth and how did that transition occur?
DB: We knew that turning spider silk into our own polymers was going to be a really hard problem. There’s sort of a historical nature to scientific research and scientific development, where an academic lab makes one discovery and it gets escalated in the press as “scientists solve the silk problem.” There have been many people in this field who have said that next year we’re going to be wearing spider silk garments. And for about 20 years of that talk, no one has been able to deliver.
Ultimately, we decided that until we can actually deliver on our promises, we’re just going to stay quiet. Now we’ve determined that we are ready to come out of stealth. We’ve grown and are in a scale-up phase, which allows us to prepare for our first commercial quality yarns with the goal of making product to deliver early next year.
ET: I look forward to seeing those products in the year ahead. You bring an interesting background to this field: you are both a scientist and an academic. Now you’re an entrepreneur too. How have you trained yourself to flip the switch from scientist and academic to innovator and executive?
DB: As an academic scientist, the first barrier was switching to a minimum viable model and the de-risking model, which included having inherent faith that we could solve these problems. And we were trying to do everything right from the start—the most scalable, the perfect product from the very beginning.
When we were first pitching to places like Foundation Capital, people ultimately wanted to see the product. While it was great that we knew a lot, and while it’s important that we had a path, they wanted to know that we could make silk fiber. That was the bottom line. This caused us to really rework our thinking. In an academic mindset, you’re just figuring out how to get to the finish line, and then you work on getting there. But business-minded people need to know that they’re seeing a certain amount of progress and that you can point to specific milestones.
In terms of the entrepreneur aspect, I went from a completely technical problem-solving mindset to an organization-building mindset, which has been fascinating. Above all else, it has been important for me to think about people and their motivations.
ET: Recently, Foundation Capital has spent a lot of time discussing how companies like yours don’t just build new products, but entirely new markets. I’m curious, what have you been able to learn from people in the textile industry?
DB: Textiles is a dying industry in the United States. It’s no secret. The industry is coming back a little bit in certain areas, but most manufacturing has moved out of the country. And anybody you meet in the textile industry, or what’s left of it, will say the same thing: they’re all getting older.
People in the textile industry have seen a lot of fads, so they’re skeptical. It took a lot of work to prove that Bolt Threads is something much more. Demonstrating a healthy respect for them and the knowledge they can bring in was key. Now we’re trying to extract that knowledge and pass it down so it doesn’t just disappear. Once they felt that benefit, and believed in our success, they were very willing to help. But it was a difficult network to get into.
ET: I can tell you that we don’t think you’re just a fad. And I don’t think the audience here does either. We have two questions from them that are especially fitting for our discussion. First, how have you created your product with an eye for the environment?
DB: Environmental concerns are particularly poignant in textiles. There is so much new technology in terms of how to make better, cleaner textiles. In this context, cleaner means that the process itself is better for the environment and is more sustainable overall. We have a unique opportunity because we’re starting from scratch. We’re teaming up with the players that are the most willing and amenable to working with new tools that keep the environment in mind.
Product Minds’ events are all about the art, science, and drive that is required to build great products. What began as a small series in San Francisco quickly transformed into larger scale meetings with people interested in the intersection of science, innovation, and the developing world of start-ups. The SXSW edition of Product Minds was entitled “Science Reality” because at Foundation Capital, we believe that we’re fortunate to live in a time where we embrace technology and innovation. Product Minds allows us to explore these innovations.