Ancient organisms help create fabric of the future

23/11/2016 - 13:55

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A WA-based company could potentially shake up the $US96 billion global textile industry with a natural fibre originally sourced from wine.

Gary Cass’s mistake-turn-innovation has led him to experiment with a natural fibre, in creations such as the sparkling couture dress. Photo: Shasa Michael

A WA-based company could potentially shake up the $US96 billion global textile industry with a natural fibre originally sourced from wine.

More than two decades ago at a South West vineyard, Gary Cass spoiled a vat of wine by flooding it with oxygen. No big deal, accidents happen.

What struck him at the time, however, was the textile-like substance that remained after the Acetobacter bacteria, which had fed on the wine, had overwhelmed the vat.

Trained as an agricultural scientist, Mr Cass spent the next few years working in his field at the University of Western Australia, periodically contemplating potential uses for the fibre he had inadvertently ‘created’.

“It started off as an art project at first,” Mr Cass told Business News of his early work with the fabric.

“But I remember thinking this material is unique and it has the potential to change the world.”

In 2006, Mr Cass teamed up with Perth fashion designer Donna Franklin and released the world’s first wine dress made from Acetobacter in 2007, for a project called ‘Fermented Fashion’.

As the fibre was grown to shape, resulting in one-piece seamless garments with no stitching, it was immediately seen as a valuable innovation for the fashion industry.

“For years I struggled with questions around when this would be commercially available,” Mr Cass said.

“I’m an agricultural scientist and Donna was an artist, so we were both struggling with the fabric’s structural issues.”

Although globally successful as an art piece Mr Cass said when the wine dress dried it became brittle, cracked and would fall off its wearer.

In early 2014, Mr Cass approached Australian organic chemist Wayne Best and, in the process of applying different treatments to solve the brittleness, other culture mediums were explored, leading to the creation of a beer dress and Yellowglen fascinator in 2015 as well as a sparkling couture dress in 2016.

“If you can’t do something yourself you have to build a team around you with specialities,” Mr Cass said.

“We had a major breakthrough; whether it was wine, beer, sparkling or even coconut water, we discovered the bacteria could convert liquid into a solid cellulose cotton-like fibre.

“That’s when we took it to the next level and launched Nanollose.”

Nanollose was established by Mr Cass and colleagues in 2014 and is a research and development company; its aim is to provide an eco-friendly and environmentally sustainable natural textile fibre.

Nanollose microbial cellulose. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Nanollose currently holds the provisional patent for the processing of the fibre called microbial cellulose and is working towards a second patent application.

This year, the business began its transition from a private to a public company when Mac Equity Partners completed $600,000 in seed funding, which was raised within three hours of the book being opened. Within 36 hours they had received more than $2 million.

“That interest gave us confidence in selling this company as an eco-friendly, environmentally sustainable organisation,” Mr Cass said.

“To me it showed that people are concerned about the future of the planet and are willing to back us on this.”

Mac Equity will also be the lead manager for a $5 million IPO next year.

By using the waste products of various industries (sugar, wine, food processing) to produce a fibre, via low-tech fermentation systems that require little land, water or energy, Mr Cass hopes the business can reduce the environmental impact of other textiles, such as cotton. 

“It takes 8,000 litres of water to produced one pair of cotton denim jeans,” he said.

“We don’t want to replace cotton, we want to provide an alternative and alleviate some of the environmental pressures of the cotton industry.”

After next year’s IPO, Mr Cass plans to increase operations from the few vats and beakers in his backyard shed to larger premises, with an investment in more technology and people.

The Nanollose business model is to patent the products and processes and then on-license its intellectual property to organisations already engaged in the cellulose production space, capable of mass-production.

“The Nanollose bacteria produces this material at 30 degrees optimum,” Mr Cass said.

“So we could license it to companies based up north, where there are high temperatures all year round.

“Or, as a global community, we could engage with our nearest neighbours, like Indonesia.”

Mr Cass said there were businesses in South-East Asia that had already scaled-up a cellulose production process where it was manufactured as a foodstuff, which he said could then easily be converted into a wearable fibre.

WA creative scientist Gary Cass. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Fashion creations made from the Nanollose fibre have toured the world with appearances in Ripley’s Believe it or Not, the Milan World Expo in 2015 and, more recently, at the 2016 Perth Fashion Festival.

Beyond the fashion realm, Nanollose has already sparked interest from an undisclosed large-scale manufacturer currently operating in the hygiene product space.

The personal hygiene market is expected to reach a market value of $US72 billion by 2020, and Mr Cass said Nanollose fibre offered a 100 per cent biodegradable alternative to the synthetic polymers used in nappies and female hygiene products, which took around 500 years to break down in the environment.

Another application for the fibre is within the $US256 billion (2017 estimate) paper market, for its strength properties as well as a potential wet-end additive to enhance retention in coating and packaging applications.

There are also plans to enter the medical field (projected to reach $US20 billion by 2017) to provide material for non-woven surgical kits, or in the tissue regenerative space as the physical structure of the Nanollose fibre is physically similar to collagen.

“We gave the Ear Institute some of our material and they’ve been able to scaffold ear drum cells,” he said.

“So when you rupture your ear drum we can put a patch of material into the ear and the cells will grow back over it."

He said the fibre had also been used to scaffold liver cells, and he was currently in discussion with renowned plastic surgeon Fiona Wood with regard to her spray-on skin (cells) product.  

“The wearable industry is the low-hanging fruit, the easy access market,” Mr Cass said.  

“The medical industry involves FDA approvals, regulations and clinical trials; it’s a lot harder to get into but has a lot of potential.

“This whole process has shown that through creativity we can drive innovations and new ideas to solve world problems.” 


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