When you think of green, climate-conscious industries, you’d be forgiven if fashion wasn’t at the top of your list. Ruby Laboratories wants to put an end to that by creating new, more ecological fabrics. The company does this by capturing the CO wastetwo and creating natural textiles, ignoring agriculture and manufacturing. The company claims it is carbon-negative, water-neutral and naturally biodegradable.
It’s not too early either – the fashion industry emits more carbon than international flights and shipping combined, accounting for around 10% of greenhouse gases every year, the BBC informs. While greening the industry is commendable, I would argue that the problem may be with the fashion industry itself; in a world where an item of clothing is worn an average of seven times before being discarded, it appears that the “reduce, reuse, recycle” greener living mantra falls short on all three points as far as fashion is concerned. Still; people go people, fashion doesn’t go away in a hurry, and maybe it’s better if a twice-worn outfit rots and fades from memory in a landfill faster than slower.
Against this background, Ruby Laboratories is hoisting a green flag over the industry with “carbon-negative cellulosic textiles”. The company, founded by the founder’s nieces in baby fashion brand (with a market cap in excess of $100 million as I write this), announced that it has raised a $4.5 million seed funding round from Capital of Talis and Necessary Ventures, and a handful of additional institutional investors (the company press release lists Climactic, Collaborative Fund, Plug and Play, Incite Ventures, Darco Capital, Cayuse Partners, Axial VC, Climate Capital Collective, and CapitalX) and a host 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 the Dorm Room Fund). Additionally, the funding round also includes a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
A big leap in technology
“I have always been passionate about sustainability and climate. When we founded Ruby, everything fell into place. Starting at age 15, I published my first article on artificial photosynthesis at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab,” explains Neeka Mashouf, CEO of Ruby Laboratories. “Since then, I have focused a lot on researching sustainable materials. I studied materials and business engineering at UC Berkeley and then got involved in launching ventures around sustainability.”
For Ruby Labs, the duo developed technologies and registered several patents. Its first product is a cell-free biocatalytic process that resulted in 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 silk and synthetic velvet. It is usually made by taking wood pulp, dissolving it in chemicals, and spinning it into fibers that can be spun into yarn. Threads make fabric, fabrics make clothes, you get the idea.
“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 systems of biology that could solve human problems that evolution itself wasn’t necessarily solving. I have also been working in bioengineering research labs since I was 15 years old, leading projects from conception and execution and transfer to clinical trials, mainly focused on solving one of the most difficult diseases to treat in medicine: brain cancer,” says Leila Mashouf, CTO at Ruby Laboratories. “And that work took me to medical school at Harvard Medical School, where I was exposed to so many different speakers who spoke a lot about climate change and the threat to human health that climate change posed.”
To fulfill its goals, Ruby captures COtwo of waste streams from manufacturing facilities using its proprietary enzyme system. It is able to capture and convert COtwo of a gas inlet at any concentration.
“What’s exciting is that our technology is really very flexible in the source of COtwo. We tested and proved that it can work even in direct air capture, which is very low CO levels.two”, explains Laila Mashouf. She adds that it makes even more sense to capture COtwo from sources directly related to textile production. “We like to use concentrated sources of COtwoas flue gas from a factory or an industrial source.”
Once captured from any available source, COtwo it is then converted into cellulose, which can be used to create viscose-based yarns. By using enzymes as a catalyst, Rubi claims that he is able to transform 100% of the COtwo entering the reactors into a final product, all with zero waste. If at some point the company manages to replace all the viscose used in the fashion industry, the product is also widely used in other sectors, such as automotive tires, food, packaging and construction materials.
As mentioned, the company has raised $4.5 million, which is largely earmarked for product development from concept and sample scale through launch to 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 they are the perfect team to make that happen.”
From an investor perspective, Talis saw a huge opportunity to shake up the textile industry.
“When we think where [Talis Capital] likes to invest, materials has always been a big problem. In the next decade, we really need to rethink everything around us, from chemicals to building materials and packaging. Textile is also one of them. I’ve spent a lot of time in the fashion space and we’re aware of the problem the industry has from a supply chain perspective. What we really like about Ruby is that if we look at the textile space, there’s cotton as the most used material, but it’s very difficult to remake 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, an associate at Talis Capital. “And finally there’s viscose, which is the third largest material. It comes from natural base materials, but it has a lot of production issues. But if you can clean them, you can have a huge impact on space. We started looking there and we liked the look of the return potential and the impact perspective. We found Ruby and we love their COtwo approximation. It fits perfectly.”
Far be it from me to be skeptical of anyone trying to do something good in green tech – it all helps – but I notice it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a relatively small round that had so many institutional investors and angels at the cap table, especially from a set. from founders who are as well connected to the world of high-end fashion as Neeka and Leila Mashouf. Trying to understand, I asked Talis Capital what the deal was. “It is a family business, but it is not their family business”, explained Manduca, who led the business alongside one of the company’s partners. A somewhat curious comment, as the headline in the press release that Talis Capital sent me referred to the founders as “Heirs of Bebe Stores”.
Rolling up to launch
The first textile samples of Ruby are expected to be available in February 2022. Ruby has validated its technology by creating a successful prototype and claims it has developed test plans with several top global retail and fashion brands. Ruby is also in discussions with several multinational energy and manufacturing companies to provide COtwo to scale production.
For now, the company is targeting the fashion industry as its product is quite premium compared to the existing fabrics available; but as technology improves and scale increases, the company hopes to reduce prices as well.
“Our goal is to achieve price parity with standard viscose. It really unlocks [our product], because viscose is a very common material in both fast fashion and high-end designer fashion as well,” explains Neeka Mashouf. “Being able to be price competitive with standard textiles on the market means that 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 to other things like building materials, packaging, food and more. We can achieve this symbiotic vision with the planet using COtwo to make critical materials in a way that is water- and earth-neutral, chemical-neutral, symbiotic with the planet.”