Medford, Massachusetts--A fifteen minute Uber ride north of Boston, past food chains like Dunkin’ Donuts, tucked into a suburb about 3,500 miles away from the Paris runways, lies a relatively unknown startup that recently received an investment from Chanel, one of the most famous and notoriously secretive luxury goods makers in the world.
Evolved by Nature’s headquarters, an office like any other – filled with rows of desks and cups of coffee, is abuzz with innovative creativity, scientists, and chemists who might just be on the brink of using silk proteins to rid fashion and the world of a major pollutant: microplastics.
“It’s not that microplastics themselves are bad, but microplastics absorb all these other chemicals…and in the end they end up in plankton, in our food source, and without even knowing it, we have these chemicals in our food supply,” said founder, chemist Dr. Greg Altman.
Altman and his business partner Dr. Rebecca Lacouture met at Tufts, in a class where Altman was her TA. The two bonded as they attempted to regrow ligament tissue using cell fibers in bioreactors. After Lacouture was diagnosed with cancer, the two were on a mission to rid cosmetics and clothes of harmful chemicals derived from the microplastics that are blended into face creams and coated onto yoga pants and are, believe it or not, lurking on the most eco-friendly wool sweaters.
Founded in 2013, the firm, with the help of Jeff Vinik, the former manager of Fidelity’s Magellan Fund, raised over $51 million from some of the most powerful families: Roy P. Disney and The Kraft Group among them. Chanel, Altman said, has made a small investment, but would not disclose the nature or the amount of Chanel's involvement.
When contacted, Chanel would not comment on its attempts at diversifying its portfolio. Over the last two years, the luxury goods maker owned by the notoriously secretive Wertheimer family, has gone on a buying spree, expanding its portfolio outside its fashion & accessories, eyewear, fragrance, skincare, makeup, fine jewellery, and watches portfolio. From wineries to sustainable startups, its investments have broadened the company’s divisions, as well as its power.
An investment in Evolved by Nature, even a micro one, may be one of Chanel’s smartest ones yet. According to Evolved by Nature, the proteins they derive from discarded, “ugly” silk cocoons unfit for the luxury world, which are harvested in cooperative farms in Japanese hamlets, can be used anywhere.
“The way I like to think about it is that silk is nature’s form of plastic, and all we have done is basically make it available to re-form into different shapes and structure,” Altman said, noting that Evolved by Nature is rooted in finding a medical solution to prevent cancer.
To make a complicated, scientific story short, their method involves dissolving the silk protein in water until it re-forms or turns into a huge ball of jello. (Activated Silk is a liquid. It can gel, however) The possibilities are endless.
“At the end of the day, Evolved by Nature is basically committed to advancing world health, so we actually think of ourselves as a healthcare company. We started out in skincare trying to get rid of many of the plastics that were in our skincare. So that way when we wash our face or take a shower we’re not dumping all those microplastics down the drain,” Altman added, noting that what Evolved by Nature realized was that the same chemicals in our skincare are used to coat surfaces like lacquered floors and walls, which are actually washable because they are coated in a thin layer of plastic.
Other ugly truths, Altman said, is that wool sweaters, even the most luxurious ones, are actually coated in a small layer of micro plastic and that recycled polyester is actually toxic and not safe for human skin. Beyond micro plastics, the chemists are also looking to replace other chemicals of concern in textile finishing as well, such as formaldehyde that can be used in nylon and chlorine processing of wool.
Looking ahead, Evolved by Nature’s main goal transcends fashion and its manufacturing conundrums. It is focused on finding a way to replace those chemicals with silk proteins and ultimately help stop climate change.
“If we can just continue to reuse what we have, we can stop the effect of climate change caused by fracking and oil production, but more importantly we can keep these materials out of trash and out of our oceans and things of that nature.”