Major leisure-wear label lululemon is now selling men’s and women’s shirts made from Geno’s plant-based nylon, which looks and feels like traditional nylon but is made sustainably, without fossil fuels.
The sale is the result of a partnership formed during a 2021 series C funding round: lululemon took equity and Geno used the investment to commercialize their idea within two years. The shirts went on sale on April 18, and things are off to a good start.
“They were flying off the shelves. I know some sizes are already sold out. I just got mine delivered yesterday,” says Geno Head of Impact Sasha Calder, who is clearly pleased with the launch. “It’s fun to go online after our team has worked so hard on this for so many years, and to be able to go to lululemon.com, see our products and purchase them.”
Geno plant-based nylon is made from fruit sugars fermented in yeast that’s been gene edited to produce a specific reaction. The final product is a nylon that can be “dropped in” to the production process and used like ordinary fossil-fuel-based nylon. Best of all, Geno’s plant-based nylon costs the same as traditional nylon, so the sustainable choice also makes good business sense.
The shirts represent an achievement in lululemon’s commitment to transition to all renewable or recycled nylon by 2030 and to launch alternatives by 2025. Since nylon is the biggest portion of lululemon’s fabric mix, this commitment represents a major reduction in non-renewables.
“The nylon industry is a $22 billion a year industry,” says Calder. “We’ve proven that Geno’s plant-based nylon technology works, and we look forward to it working at scale,” to dramatically reduce the nylon industry’s environmental footprint.
Substituting raw materials, palm oil
But nylon is not the only market where Geno is working to provide a sustainable alternative to fossil fuel-based inputs. They have developed a host of materials by altering the mix of their core fermentation process. “Our technology, you can think of it like ‘Intel Inside’: it’s the same process throughout our portfolio, however how we get different materials based on different applications,” says Calder.
This is how Geno make their bio BDO, which replaces fossil-fuel based BDO (1,4-butanediol), a common industrial raw material used in products ranging from athletic apparel to seat cushions and more. “It’s a 2.5 million ton per year market and we offer a 90% carbon savings in comparison to the competitive technologies in the market, so what do you think about the scale of carbon savings for 2.5 million metric tons?” says Calder.
Geno’s process for making bio BDO will be put to use at a $300 million plant being built in Eddyville, Iowa. The plant is expected to expand global bio BDO production to more than 100,000 tons, Geno says.
Calder also expresses excitement about Geno’s partnership with L’Oreal, Kao, and Unilever to develop sustainable surfacants that take the place of palm oil in personal care, beauty, home care and industrial cleaning products. Given producers’ desire to avoid the deforestation caused by some palm oil harvesting, and pending EU regulations on deforestation, “we knew that the demand for responsibly sourced palm oil will continue to grow, both from the private market but also from the regulatory market” she says.
Other products that Geno has made through its unique fermentation process include:
- Brontide® a sustainable bio-based version of butylene glycol, a chemical used widely in personal care products.
- Avela™ a plant-based alternative to (R)-1,3 Butanediol, an ingredient that helps drive the physical benefits of ketosis.
Meanwhile, Geno continues to look for new ways to use their technology to make high-impact sustainable substitutes for commonly used materials.
Biomanufacturing’s time has come
All in all it’s a great time for Geno, and for biomanufacturing in general, according to Calder.
“Here in the United States, there has been incredible acceleration of interest and funding in biomanufacturing just in the last year,” including among politicians, she says. Calder notes that President Biden’s Executive Order on Biomanufacturing and the Inflation Reduction Act both contain federal incentives for biomanufacturing, and the White House’s Bold Goals for U.S. Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing lays out a strategy for supporting R&D in the field.
“This is biomanufacturing and biotech’s moment, and we’re just really proud that Geno’s technology is at a place of maturity and proven scale already, so that we can make the most of this moment,” says Calder.