Humble Bee Organic is on a mission to create a biodegradable alternative to plastic by synthesizing the biology of bees. While the New Zealand-based company is still in its early stages — it’s about halfway through its proof of concept — if Humble Bee is successful, its bioplastics will likely make it to the sustainable textile industry.
Humble Bee, who just raised $3.2 million (NZD$5 million) in convertible notes as part of its Series A, has been studying the Australian masked bee, a species of solitary bee that doesn’t make honey, but does make a nesting material for laying larvae, which has many plastic-like properties.
“It is resistant to acids and bases. It’s hydrophobic, it’s waterproof, it’s flame retardant, it’s stable up to 240 degrees Celsius,” Ryan Graves, chief technology officer at Humble Bee, told gotechbusiness.com. “The idea is, how can we recreate this?”
The team uses a synthetic biology approach that examines the bee’s genetic code and identifies the genes and proteins responsible for the nesting material. Humble Bee has extracted the code and is trying to recreate it in the lab. Next, the company will attempt to synthesize plastic-like materials, focusing on four different types of biomaterials that can be converted into fibers and finishes for fabrics.
Humble Bee aims to prove the concept sometime between March and June 2023, after which the team hopes to scale production using industrial-scale fermentation.
“There is still some level of research to be done,” Graves said, “The processes are time consuming and challenging. To go from code to protein is usually a 12 month process and then we have to scale it up to get hundreds of grams of the to get stuff out.
Only then can Humble Bee even think about a commercial strategy, but Graves said the company has already been approached by many textile companies and other companies that use upholstery, “such as Airbus, Toyota, Ford” – companies that are trying circular economic practices and need to think about it. over the entire life cycle of their products.
“Right now you’re looking inside a car and it’s largely based on petrochemicals, so the degradation properties of that are just pretty horrendous,” Graves said.
The CTO also said fashion brands have contacted Humble Bee Bio. Environmental sustainability has become a priority for apparel companies, especially when it comes to responsible and sustainable sourcing of materials, according to a McKinsey Study 2019† This is most evident so far with activewear brands, such as The North Face that used brewed protein materials for its Moon Parkaor Adidas, which partnered with Bolt Threads to make a shoe with mushroom-based material.
“There are a lot of different companies in this space and that’s one of the things that has allowed us to act very quickly,” says Graves. “We stand on the shoulders of giants who have done a lot with spider silk. So you have companies like Bolt Threads and Spiber that have large market caps and are much closer to the commercial end. They have made proof of concept garments, which is a step further than what we are trying to do here.”
With Humble Bee’s most recent pay raise, the company is looking to hire another senior scientist and continue to fund its outsourced R&D. Graves said New Zealand isn’t the best place for biotech production because of some “old-fashioned” genetic engineering laws, so it seems that countries like Thailand, the US, Mexico and Argentina have existing infrastructure in space.
“One of the beauties of bioproduction is that once you have the code, the actual cell constructed and basically the recipe for how you do the fermentation, it’s possible to create a distributed production model,” Graves says.
The company has its eye on the next raise if all goes well with proof of concept, saying it’s shopping for VCs who focus on impact and climate space and aren’t averse to risk.