Cofounders Greg Altman and Rebecca Lacouture in Silk Inc.'s lab in Medford, Mass.

As consumer demand for cleaner and greener products continues to burgeon, brands and retailers are exploring new ways to integrate sustainability into the mix.

And companies such as Silk Inc., a specialty biomaterials firm, created a proprietary pure liquefied silk that is intrinsically sustainable and ideal for use in skin care, textiles and medical products. Silk Inc. founders Drs. Gregory Altman, chief executive officer, and Rebecca (Horan) Lacouture, president and chief operating officer, formulate the company’s natural “Liquid Silk” protein in-house at a custom laboratory and headquarters facility in Medford, Mass. With their respective combined backgrounds in biotechnology and biomedical engineering, the pair partnered in 2013 to launch skin-care line Silk Therapeutics with aspirations “to create powerhouse formulas that leverage the elegant designs of nature” after years of independent research and study in the field.

The firm recently entered a partnership with Harrods of London Pharmacy, which will begin selling Silk Therapeutics skin-care products in August this year via an 18-month exclusivity term; the store will be the first luxury retailer to sell “Liquid Silk” skin care outside of the U.S. And Silk Inc. announced the closing of an $11 million Series A3 financing last year, led by The Kraft Group and Jeff Vinik, former manager of Fidelity’s Magellan Fund and owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, in addition to support from existing investors Roy P. Disney, Lear Corp. and Altman Health Investments. In total, the firm secured $21 million within Series A funding for its advances in the skin care and fabric sectors.

Here, Altman and Lacouture discuss silk’s innate sustainability and the current and potential uses for silk-based medical and consumer health products.

WWD: How is Silk Therapeutics’ skin-care technology distinguished in the market?

Dr. Gregory Altman: Liquid Silk represents a truly unique natural chemistry platform for skin care. Today’s skin-care products often require 20 to 50-plus ingredients, many of which are inexpensive synthetic fillers, stabilizers and emulsifiers. These products are often made with a base formula and are produced at large volumes to reduce costs. As a result, they typically require fillers to “hold” the product together, leading to lower concentrations of active ingredients that sometimes conflict or neutralize each other.

As a natural protein with an innate affinity for the skin’s collagen, Liquid Silk eliminates the need for synthetic fillers and harsh preservatives. It’s an all-around multitasker that allows us to reformulate clinical-grade skin care from the ground up, enabling us to create highly concentrated products with only a handful of clean, active ingredients.

Close-up of a pure Liquid Silk skin-care formulation on a spatula in a pea-sized amount. Photograph courtesy of Silk Inc.  Courtesy

WWD: Why is silk 100 percent sustainable?

Dr. Rebecca Lacouture: Liquid Silk is simply made from water and pure silk fiber. The silkworms that produce silk fiber are pesticide-averse, with a sole food source of organic mulberry leaves grown and renewed by the sun and rain. They naturally consume CO2 during cocoon creation, rendering the silk-making process an inherently renewable, environmentally friendly cycle.

As we only require the biomass of silk protein to make Liquid Silk, we reduce waste by using existing cocoons discarded by the textile industry, and we’re teaming with cooperatives to support farmers worldwide as we scale production. Liquid Silk is naturally biodegradable, so unlike synthetic fillers and additives like micro-plastics, it does not contaminate the water supply. It is a truly sustainable alternative, capable of generating real change in an industry increasingly concerned about reducing environmental impact.

WWD: Why are Silk Therapeutics’ products a breakthrough in skin-care technology?

G.A.: Liquid Silk is a natural chemistry platform derived from pure silk protein, the building block of the silk fiber long cherished by the textile industry. As an alternative to synthetic chemistry, individual silk proteins can naturally “self-assemble” to form larger complexes or polymers, such as the silk fiber used in fabric, without using solvents and plasticizers that can adversely affect biology and the human endocrine system.

In its liquid state, silk can also self-assemble with the skin’s primary protein, collagen. This enables it to enhance the look and feel of skin with just a single application, naturally helping to tighten and seal in moisture without any harmful ingredients. Liquid Silk is biocompatible with human skin and serves as both the active ingredient and the primary ingredient in our skin care, allowing us to create powerhouse formulas that leverage the elegant designs of nature.

By replacing synthetic fillers and polymers, Liquid Silk reduces the environmental impact on the water streams that feed into our oceans and into our food supply. Due to its unique ability for self-assembly, Liquid Silk also serves as an emulsifier, holding oil- and water-based ingredients together while replacing synthetic alternatives. And as a natural protein, it decreases our reliance on harsh skin-care preservatives, leaving room for highly concentrated, good-for-skin essentials.

Discarded silk cocoons (sourced from Japan) before they are put into Silk Inc.’s liquifying process. Photograph courtesy of Silk Inc. 

WWD: Why did Silk Inc. pursue the integration of liquefied silk into textiles?

R.L.: Decades ago, consumers began to pay greater attention to our food supply, and it has now become commonplace to purchase clean, organic foods in order to reduce exposure to synthetic additives such as pesticides. Today, this behavior is emulated across many industries, including skin care and apparel, by those seeking clean alternatives to products that come into contact with the body.

While nearly all clothing is finished with synthetic chemicals that provide a range of technical features — from color-fastness to moisture management — current regulations do not require the disclosure of this chemistry. These additives are now beginning to be recognized as an area of concern among consumers, and clothing manufacturers have not previously had access to cleaner chemistry alternatives.

Our pure Liquid Silk technology can be utilized to achieve a broad canvas of functional and tactile applications, from wicking to waterproofing, firmness and silky smoothness. At Silk Inc., we recognize Liquid Silk’s unique ability to replace finishing chemicals at an industrial scale, and we feel compelled to use our natural chemistry platform to enhance public health.

WWD: What other applications could be enhanced by liquefied silk?

G.A.: We view the Liquid Silk portfolio as an entirely new broad-scale green chemistry platform. It’s the first since the mid 20th century that does not rely on petrochemical feedstock and agriculture, and we ultimately hope to replace synthetic additives and plastics across a range of industries, including food, paper and other consumer goods.

However, focus is critical, and expanding our reach in skin care and building partnerships with forward-thinking apparel brands is more than enough to keep us busy at the moment. From moisture management to water repellency and odor control, Liquid Silk provides clothing with the technical benefits customers are used to without the need for undisclosed synthetic additives. With the textile finishing chemistry market currently assessed at a massive $23 billion, there is a significant opportunity to broadly improve human health while making a sustainable difference, and we’re excited to see what the future holds.

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