Spider silk – the fibers woven by spiders into webs to catch prey or protect offspring – is made out of proteins that exhibit a unique combination of strength and elasticity. This makes the silk five times stronger than steel of the same diameter and one of the toughest and most resilient materials in nature.
It is thus not a surprise that companies worldwide, in the field of biomaterials, are trying to replicate its properties for a number of uses, from textile to medical and cosmetics, as it is also environmentally friendly and sustainable.
For the largest companies working in material science, creating an artificially developed spider silk is “the holy grail,” said Jeffrey Grossman, the chairperson of the board of Israeli startup Seevix Material Sciences Ltd., a spinoff from the technology transfer arm of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem-based startup says it has managed to produce synthetic spider silk fibers that are identical in their characteristics to the ones found in nature: five times stronger than high tensile steel at one-fifth the weight.
Last week, the Israel Innovation Authority informed the startup that it will provide it with a grant to set up an industrial manufacturing facility in Israel for the creation of the synthetic spider silk. Earlier this month, the startup said that ASICS Ventures, the venture arm of the maker of sportswear ASICS, has invested in Seevix to jointly develop sporting goods utilizing the firm’s SVX spider silk.
The firm says it has genetically engineered a unique DNA sequence and through a fermentation process using bacteria, sugar, yeast and water has come up with a material that mimics the natural process of fiber creation and the traits of spider silk.
“The spiderweb looks not strong because it is very, very thin,” said Seevix CEO and co-founder Shlomzion Shen in a phone interview. “But if you take the spider web and make it in the diameter of a pencil, it would probably stop a Boeing 747 while flying. It is that strong.”
Using its DNA sequence, Seevix replicates the natural process of spider silk creation, and combines its toughness with other materials, to create “significantly stronger, lighter and thinner materials” for use in sports products, medical devices, cosmetics, the defense industry, textiles, 3D cell culture, and the automotive and aerospace industries. Adding the synthetic silk to these materials gives them added unique properties of strength, elasticity and sustainability, the company said.
The material could be used to create lightweight, durable scaffolds for orthopedic reconstructive surgery, knee and ligament repairs, surgical meshes, dental and orthopedic implants, and bio-dressings to boost wound healing, for example.
Another possible application could be for the creation of more resilient condoms, said Grossman. By combining the synthetic silk with latex, the material would be able to make a “thinner and stronger condom that is less apt to tear,” he said.
Companies working on creating artificial spider silk have been trying to take the constituent proteins and put them together to create something that provides similar strength, toughness and elasticity to that of the silk created by the spiders, said Grossman.
“What other companies try to do is force these proteins together, and it doesn’t work,” said Grossman.
Seevix’s fermentation process allows the proteins “to self-assemble in the same way that happens in the belly of the spider,” he said.
“We have a spontaneous self-assembly process resembling the process in nature. and due to that, we do not have to invent nature, we just need to mimic nature,” Shen, the CEO, said. “By mimicking the process of nature, we actually generate a product with the characteristics of real spider silk. If you try to do this artificially by binding and forcing one protein to another, you will not get those amazing characteristics.”
For cosmetic applications of the material, the SVX material, which is a biopolymer, would be added to a variety of skincare formulations, which generally have active ingredients that decompose quickly as the product is stored on store shelves or when it touches the human skin.
SVX is made up of small nanofibers entangled together with lots of pores in between, like a small sponge. These pores can be loaded with all kinds of active ingredients which they sort of encapsulate and then release gradually onto the skin, Shen said.
Another product the company has developed is a very thin but strong surgical suture.
The firm has also already started sales of a scaffold product made of the SVX material, which is used by researchers in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector to grow cells in a three-dimensional format. The scaffold has a highly porous structure that enables better access to oxygen and nutrients and can be used for cancer, stem cell and tissue engineering research, and for printing cell-based tissues in the lab.
The company was founded in 2014 by Shen and Shmulik Ittah, who based their work on 10 years of research conducted at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The firm has raised funds from private investors in Israel, the US, Europe and also Australia. It employs 20 workers, including biologists, chemists and material scientists.
Seevix is now seeking investors and strategic partners to raise $10 million to $15 million what Shen said would be the first large-scale industrial spider silk generating facility in Israel, and for marketing and sales operations.
The idea is to collaborate with market leaders, such as ASICS, in a variety of sectors to license and integrate the silk as a raw material into products that would be “powered by the Seevix” silk, just as computers boast to having an “Intel Inside” chip, said Shen.
Besides ASICS, the firm has collaborations of which it cannot yet speak, said Shen: two in the medical field and others in the specialty materials field; in the sports equipment sector – for lightweight and impact-absorbing equipment, like mountain bikes, fishing rods or tennis rackets; and in shoes. There is also a high level of interest from the defense industry, Shen said, for a variety of products, such as lightweight and strong bulletproof vests.