When you think of green and climate-conscious industries, you’d be forgiven if fashion isn’t high on your list. Rubi Laboratories wants to remedy this by creating new fabrics that are more respectful of the environment. The company achieves this by capturing waste CO2 and create 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, which accounts for around 10% of greenhouse gases every year, BBC reports. While making the industry greener is laudable, I would argue that the problem may actually lie within the fashion industry itself; in a world where an item of clothing is worn seven times on average before it is thrown away, it seems that the “reduce, reuse, recycle“The greener life mantra falls short on all three counts when it comes to fashion. Always; people go people, fashion isn’t going to go away all of a sudden, and maybe it’s better that a garment that’s been worn twice rots and fades from memory in a landfill faster than more slowly.
In this context, Rubi Laboratories flies a green banner over the industry with “negative carbon cellulosic textiles”. The company, founded by the nieces of the founder in baby fashion Brand (with a market cap north of $100 million as I write this), announced that it has raised $4.5 million in seed funding from Capital of Talis and Necessary Ventures, and a handful of additional institutional investors (the company’s press release lists Climactic, Collaborative Fund, Plug and Play, Incite Ventures, Darco Capital, Cayuse Partners, Axial VC, Climate Capital Collective, and CapitalX) and a multitude 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 to this, the funding round also includes a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
A great technological leap
“I have always been passionate about sustainability and the climate. When we founded Rubi, everything came 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 have really focused on researching sustainable materials. I studied materials engineering and business at UC Berkeley, then got into building businesses around sustainability.
For Rubi Labs, the duo has developed technologies and filed numerous patents. Its first product was a cell-free biocatalytic process that gave viscose — also known as rayon — the third most used textile fiber around the world. It is used as a cheaper and more durable alternative to synthetic silk and velvet. It is usually made by taking wood pulp, dissolving it in chemicals, and spinning it into fibers that can be made into yarn. Yarns make fabrics, fabrics make clothes, you get the image.
“I found myself really wanting to understand the biological systems that evolved to build carbon-based life, and how you could take inspiration from nature and design intelligent biological systems that could solve human problems that evolution would -even didn’t necessarily solve.I’ve also worked in bioengineering research labs since I was about 15 years old, leading projects from ideation to execution and transfer to clinical trials, primarily focused on solving one of the most difficult diseases to treat in medicine: 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 who came in, who talked a lot about climate change and the threat to human health that climate change represents. shut up.”
To meet its objectives, Rubi captures CO2 waste streams from manufacturing facilities using its proprietary enzyme system. It is able to capture and convert CO2 of a gas input at any concentration.
“What is exciting is that our technology is actually very flexible on the source of CO2. We have tested and proven that it can work even on direct air capture, which corresponds to very low levels of CO2“, explains Laila Mashouf. She adds that it makes even more sense to capture CO2 from sources directly related to textile production. “We like to use concentrated sources of CO2such as flue gases from a factory or industrial source.
Once captured from any available source, CO2 is then converted into cellulose, which can then be used to create viscose-based yarn. Using enzymes as a catalyst, Rubi claims he is able to transform 100% of CO2 entering the reactors into a final product, all without any waste. While at some point the company is able to replace all of the viscose used in the fashion industry, the product is also widely used in other industries, such as automotive tires, food, l packaging and building materials.
As mentioned, the company has raised $4.5 million, which is largely 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 see as possible, and who were willing to take the risks that are part of the journey, and who believed in us as founders. I think we really found that in our investors,” says Neeka Mashouf. “We found visionary, inspiring and supportive investors like Talis and Necessary Ventures. I think it’s like the perfect team for that to happen.
From an investor perspective, Talis saw a huge opportunity to shake up the textile industry.
“When you think where [Talis Capital] likes to invest, materials have always been important. Over the next decade, we will have to truly rethink everything around us, from chemicals to building materials to packaging. Textile is also part of it. I’ve spent a lot of time in the fashion business and we’re well aware of the problem the industry is facing from a supply chain perspective. What we really liked about Rubi is that if we look at the textile space, there’s cotton as the most used material, but it’s really hard to do that again with synthetic biology. Then there’s polyester, which is a great material, but it’s a kind of plastic and a fossil fuel-based material,” says Cecilia Manduca, Partner at Talis Capital. “And then finally there is viscose, which is the third most important material. It comes from natural base materials but has many production problems. But if you can clean them up, you can have a massive impact on the space. We started looking there, and we liked how it looks from a yield potential and impact perspective. We found Rubi, and we love their CO2 approach. It fits perfectly.
Far be it from me to be skeptical of anyone trying to do something good in green tech – every little bit counts – but I do note that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a relatively small tower that had so many institutional and angel investors on the cap table, especially a set of founders who are as well-connected to the fashion high net worth universe as Neeka and Leila Mashouf. To try to figure it out, I asked Talis Capital what the deal was. “It’s a family business, but it’s not their family business,” explained Manduca, who ran the business alongside one of the firm’s partners. A bit of a curious comment, given that the title of the press release Talis Capital sent me referred to the founders as “Bebe Stores heirs”.
Spooling 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 to have developed test plans with many leading global retail and fashion brands. Rubi is also in talks with various multinational energy and manufacturing companies to supply CO2 to increase production.
For now, the company is targeting the fashion industry, as its product is quite expensive compared to the existing fabrics available. but as technology improves and scale increases, the company also hopes to bring prices down.
“Our goal is to achieve price parity with standard viscose. It really unlocks [our product], because viscose is a very common material both in fast fashion and in designer fashion on a larger scale,” explains Neeka Mashouf. “Being able to be price competitive with standard textiles on the market means that the level playing field has been leveled.”
“Our vision is a world where human prosperity and economic growth are good 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 to other things, such as building materials, packaging, food and much more. We can achieve this vision in symbiosis with the planet using CO2 to manufacture critical materials in a way that is water and earth neutral, chemical neutral, symbiotic with the planet.