Vaseline, leather, and cleaning detergent. These three items are commonplace representatives of unsustainable products in personal care, textile, and surfactant that create chemical byproducts detrimental to vital Earth system processes on which human life—and every ecosystem—depends. Markets worldwide need to be weaned off of synthetics and derivatives of fossil fuels.
Evolved By Nature—a biotechnology company that creates renewably sourced biomolecule solutions to human health needs—announced today that it has closed a $120 million Series C financing round, which was led by Senator Investment Group and Teachers’ Venture Growth (TVG), a unit of the $242 billion Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board. Other existing investors included Mousse Partners, Chanel, Jeff Vinik, The Kraft Group, Roy Disney, and Emerald Development Managers.
Enabling the next generation of products that advance the health of people and the planet, Evolved By Nature has unlocked applications for Activated Silk biotechnology—which leverages natural silk protein—within textiles, personal care, aesthetic and medical treatments, and therapeutics. In the last year, Evolved By Nature’s biodegradable, high-performance finishes have been adopted by fashion brands, nylon mills, and leather tanneries.
The investment also pushes the inclusion of promising, potent Activated SilkTM skin barrier-enhancing ingredients in brand-owned and third-party personal care products as natural substitutes for harsh, synthetic substances like retinoids and derivatives of fossil fuels like petrolatum. In parallel, Evolved By Nature will keep looking for medications that effectively improve skin and treat ailments that are usually ignored.
The financing round is timed to the opening of Evolved By Nature’s cutting-edge, large-scale manufacturing facility, which will enable the company to increase production quantities to 900 metric tons of Activated Silk annually. According to Evolved By Nature’s calculations, this would equal 900 million jars of petrochemical-free skincare, 150 million square feet of biodegradable, polyurethane-free leather, sustainable finishing chemistry for 195 million pieces of performance apparel, or a replacement for 7,200 metric tons of non-biodegradable petrochemical surfactants that are routinely washed into waterways via skin cleaning products.
GEN Edge sat down with co-founder and CEO Gregory Altman, PhD, to learn more about Evolved By Nature’s inception and evolution.
GEN Edge: What drives Evolved By Nature?
Altman: Evolved By Nature was created in 2013 to advance the world’s health. It’s a pursuit to go beyond medical devices and therapeutics to consider improving a billion people’s lives. To do that, we started to take a broader look at the field of public health. We started to take a really strong look at what we call the treatment and prevention balance that we need to strike for new therapies and treatments for health problems we have today.
A bigger issue is prevention: how do we decrease the world’s reliance on fossil fuel-derived petrochemicals? The reason why we’re all here is the unfortunate fact that we’ve truly crossed a planetary boundary to sustain life as we currently know it. The volume and vastness of the chemistries, as the field and the science refer to them, novel entities, that stem from fossil fuel-derived petrochemicals. We’ve just exceeded our ecosystem’s ability to handle them. As a result, we are affecting human infertility. We have biodiversity loss that is well documented. We have fundamentally altered the biochemistry of the human body, ocean, and soil. With the pumping of fossil fuel derivatives into the materials’ world, we are changing the biochemical composition of the planet and all things that share it.
GEN Edge: What is Evolved By Nature’s process of utilizing silk proteins?
Altman: Our feedstock is the natural silk cocoon manufactured naturally by the silkworm spinning a cocoon. It is then a discard of the food industry. The silkworm eats carbon-negative Mulberry leaves. The Mulberry tree, silkworm, and humans have co-evolved over the past 5,000 years. It’s a complete carbon-negative energy source that goes into making the silk cocoon. It can be done organically without any chemicals or pesticides. That cocoon is one single silk protein stacked on top of one another in a polymer form. The beauty of the silk protein is that it has vast biochemical diversity hidden inside one protein sequence. It has repeating regions that are incredibly hydrophobic and others that are hydrophilic. The protein can form a crystalline structure, but it can also form an amorphous structure. That’s how the silk fiber is incredibly strong but also very flexible. You could tie the silk fiber into small knots, which is why it’s been used as sutures for thousands of years.
What we do is very simple. We apply basic biotechnology engineering principles combined with chemical engineering to extract that silk protein and purify it. We’re not just pulling out that silk protein, but, along the way, we are designing specific molecular weights to extract different polypeptide compositions that have different self-assembly profiles. The novelty of silk protein is that it will polymerize in the presence of water without any additional solvents or catalysts. At Evolved By Nature, we started with a thesis that said if we could gain access to the silk protein in its activated form—the protein in its primary structure—then we can apply liquid-activated silk to anything with a surface. That’s because the moment that protein encounters anything but water, it wants to bind fast in order to get out of water.
We started creating skincare formulas for folks going through chemotherapy because we knew we could create a very low ingredient formula where the Activated Silk molecule used is binding, folding, and coating the skin as well as providing barrier protection. It was a natural extension for us to think about the treatment of human skin to then move into the treatment of leather. In human skin, we can use silk to replace all sorts of petrochemical supply chains in personal care. For example, we could eliminate SDS from soap—very inexpensive but synthetically derived surfactants that, with thousands of tons, get flushed down the drain every year and right into our oceans. We can create a surfactant system with Activated Silk that will biodegrade once out into our ecosystem but works as great a biosurfactant during its performance life.
The other exciting area is the discovery of some of these peptides and polypeptides that we are harvesting from the silk cocoon. Our patents cover the production of hundreds of millions of unique molecules extracted and designed from the natural silk cocoon. We have learned that some of these Activated Silk molecules are also bioactive and are potential drug candidates for treating barrier diseases in the skin, from eczema to treating wounds for folks during the healing process from third-degree burns or skin ulcers. This is where the therapeutic prevention aspect of Evolved By Nature meets the prevention goals of the company.
Petrolatum—petroleum jellies like Vaseline and Aquaphor—is regulated as a drug in the United States. When you pick up the bottle, there’s a drug fact panel on the back because it has a designation as a skin protector. Considering Activated Silk as a therapeutic to treat the skin in a non-greasy way could eliminate our need for petrolatum, a fossil-fuel derivative known to contain endocrine disruptors. That’s a treatment that then does the work of prevention because if you eliminate the need for petrolatum, then you eliminate direct exposure to endocrine disruptors, and a huge byproduct of refining crude oil no longer has a market to sell its goods. Theoretically, that should help us decrease our dependence on fossil fuels and refining crude oil. These are just some examples of how petrochemicals lie in plain sight. We have our work cut out for us.
GEN Edge: How does Evolved By Nature decide on partnerships?
Altman: It depends on the market. When we are bringing new technology to the consumer market, sometimes, it’s hard to imagine it seamlessly working. For example, in the case of personal care, we are manufacturing an Activated Silk molecule 33B that works best for what we call barrier promotion and protection of the human skin. That natural ingredient is going into ultra-clean formulas that we are creating and will directly sell DTC as demonstration showcase products under the Evolved By Nature brand later this year. It’s also going into other branded products that we will sell using different brand names into, for example, the retail channel. I can’t disclose the brand just yet, but that model system will help us bring products directly to the shelves of CVS in Q4 of this year.
There are market segments and some consumer-packaged goods (CPG) that we’re working with where they already understand the benefit. They have established products and distribution channels that can easily showcase the Activated silk, for example, in hand care and hand sanitizer. Most people don’t know this, but hand sanitizers are filled with a non-degradable synthetic polymer. We have successfully removed that polymer from a formula, and we can use the ethanol to treat human skin with Activated Silk. Ethanol is the delivery vehicle for silk to make skin feel better. In some of these cases, we’re selling into the B2B environment, and that CPG partner will take the product to the end customer. We’re also working on what we call sustainable chemicals. Our customers are the tanneries and fabric mills making leather and performance fabrics today.
GEN Edge: How does Evolved By Nature approach R&D efforts?
Altman: Our name is Evolved By Nature, not Activated Silk. Evolved By Nature is inspired by nature’s most powerful chemistries to advance health. We believe Activated Silk holds decades of innovation that we’ve just scratched the surface of. But we are already looking at other natural materials that are either complexed with Activated Silk or can function independently.
We have no prejudice against any natural molecule that bears no upstream or downstream consequences to this planet and performs. It just so happens that silk checks all these boxes because we’ve co-evolved with the material for 5,000 years. We’ve already figured out how to harvest and grow natural silk organically. We know silk is biodegradable. We know that when activated, it performs. The last question for us was how to price it. Petrolatum, for example, is essentially a free byproduct of pulling gasoline out of crude oil. How are you going to compete with something that’s essentially free?
The power of the self-assembly of our Activated Silk 33B molecule means a much smaller amount of silk can do the same work, if not more than a whole tub of petrolatum. Thus, we look for areas where we can compete on performance and price in at parity to drive uptake. We’re agnostic to what the natural biomolecule source is, but it just so happens that silk does a lot of the work we need done.
GEN Edge: Who makes up Evolved By Nature’s workforce?
Altman: We have, for example, folks focusing on pharmacology, cell biology, and biophysical chemistry. They’re hanging out with our Creative Studio department because we also have a full-blown internal agency that is required to help us market and tell the world where all these hidden chemicals exist today and how we’re working to replace them. Our teammates cover everything from small-molecule design to regulatory affairs and clinical research. We operate, at the moment, two different quality systems. We have a full-blown operations team responsible not only for making the material but for sourcing silk from various continents around the world and then getting Activated Silk back to those continents and countries in a sustainable form. It’s a lot of fun to be Evolved By Nature right now because you’ll run into a famous photographer and then an ingenious protein drug designer.
GEN Edge: How will Evolved By Nature use the Series C funding?
Altman: In the world of biotech, there’s been tremendous promise around genetic engineering, synthetic biology, and more. But the hiccup has always been safety and performance around creating molecules that have never existed on this planet before and then trying to produce them at large scale. With this series C funding, we now can make true global change in the form of novel sustainable chemicals that can eliminate fossil fuel-derived petrochemicals in massive industries possible. And we can now discover and design novel therapies and treatments to deal with some of the ramifications of exposure to these petrochemicals today.
It’s a big, bold mission, but it is a very humble science because we’re using nature’s biotechnology. We fundamentally exist in the world of small molecule design. But with our production scale, we’re also in bioindustrials, using biotechnology principles to harvest our peptide molecules by the metric ton. Nature has already done so many amazing things for us. When we harvest from it without altering it, then the tools we need to make the necessary change are readily available.
TVG has a long time horizon and has to have a very big vision. It was a little luck and some parts faith that two bold visions would meet, but the reality is that TVG was one of the few groups that could help us capitalize on the entire vision and aspiration of Evolved By Nature and the promise of Activated Silk. What that means is we can take this production process that we’ve validated, and we now can scale it up with this capital infusion to a level where we can start shipping our products to almost every continent on this planet and truly start to make global change.
We’ll start to do that right away in the leather industry. We’re going to bring leather back to its natural origins. We’ll get rid of the hidden use of polyurethane and acrylate coatings in leather. We’re going to make leather both perform and biodegrade again. We will eliminate the use of liquid plastics and synthetic surfactants in hand care and improve health by creating new classes of bioactives to replace synthetic molecules like retinoids that irritate the skin in the personal care space. The breadth and depth of TVG’s vision are what’s going to enable this to happen.
From one feedstock material, the natural silk protein, we are harvesting millions of unique molecules. And these Activated Silk molecules can now be used as sustainable chemicals and as natural and bioactive ingredients. And most importantly, through small-molecule design, as therapeutics. These are the three pillars of our business that we can now pursue more extensively. It’s sometimes difficult to understand that if you’re coming from the fashion field because you think of silk as a fabric and material. But if we think about it as a very diverse biochemistry feedstock, you could start to grasp what is possible with the Activated Silk platform technology and even go beyond the natural silk protein’s boundaries. That way, we can help the planet stay within its boundaries for sustaining life. That’s our hope for today.