On the 44th episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy, I talk with Dan Widmaier, a co-founder of Bolt Threads, a biotech company engineering spider silk and a range of other fully sustainable materials from the ground up. I’ve gotten to know Dan over the past few months and Bolt is one of the most fascinating company I have ever interacted with. The size of the vision is massive, the technology is as cutting edge as it gets, and the potential impact is hard to quantify.

Check out the full transcript below.

It was awesome talking with Dan and seeing Bolt’s facilities out in San Francisco. Full sustainability comes from the root materials and the circular nature of what Bolt is building will have existential implications for the future of apparel. There’s a still a lot of work to be done but Bolt Threads is one to watch.

Richie: [00:00:07] Welcome to the 44th episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy. This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you access to forward-thinking research, events and our analysts—so you can capitalize on the new consumer economy. Learn more at LooseThreads.com/membership. We also have a newsletter called Ripcord that highlights one important development each week and helps you escape the noise. Learn more at LooseThreads.com/ripcord.

Joining me today is Dan Widmaier, a co-founder of Bolt Threads, a biotech company engineering spider silk and a range of other fully sustainable materials from the ground up. I’ve gotten to know Dan over the past few months and Bolt is one of the most fascinating companies I’ve ever interacted with.

Dan: [00:00:51] Biology’s not a black box like we used to think, it’s just a really complicated box. And you’ll see it continually take over because it enables all sorts of new features and functionality we’ve never been able to have before.

Richie: [00:01:01] The size of the vision is massive, the technology is as cutting edge as it gets, and the potential impact is hard to quantify. There’s still a lot of work to do but Bolt Threads is one to watch. Here’s my talk with Dan Widmaier.

Why don’t we start by talking a bit about your background and we can work our way up to Bolt Threads coming into existence.

Dan: [00:01:22] I’m a scientist by training, here in the Bay Area, UCSF over in San Francisco. Moved here from Seattle where I grew up, went to undergrad at the University of Washington. And I really wanted to be a drug chemist. So, the kind of chemist that designs drug molecules that treat disease states. And I had trained as a synthetic organic chemist, was super into it. UCSF is the best place in the world to do it.

[00:01:43] And when you start graduate school you do rotations where you kind of pick a couple labs, you try them out, you see if you get along with the advisor and with the people. So they’re like three month stints. My second one I did like this random crazy, rotation in this lab, doing what we call — there’s a lot of names for it now, but, engineered biology, applied biology, synthetic biology. And I was like “Huh, that’s pretty cool. I really like this. Forget being a drug chemist, I’m going to be a biologist.” And did that for six years and essentially built the fundamental technology that became the inspiration for Bolt. None of it worked the way it needed to for a company, but I met a lot of cool people, had a lot of fun. It was the formative stage and I was the third student in one of the first two labs in the country, in the world, working on this technology, the way it’s embodied.

Richie: [00:02:29] And what was that failed experiment or technology you worked on that led to Bolt?

Dan: [00:02:33] Oh, so it was this idea of microorganisms, so bacterias and yeast and things like that that make proteins. So your genome has 40,000 genes, each encoding a protein that carries out some function like replicating your DNA or making more cell membrane or metabolizing sugar or whatever. 40,000 of them. It was really about how you would use microorganisms to reproduce and secrete those molecules. And that’s one of the core technologies around here. The way we did it in graduate school was never going to scale, like we were growing things in salmonella using the component that it uses to make you sick. And it worked as a great, like, lab scale experiment, but no one in their right mind was going to let us grow hundreds of thousands of liters of salmonella bacteria anywhere in the world, no matter what it was making. Even though you’re using the one that only gets a mouse sick, not humans. So we really scrapped that and rebooted it when we started the company, but the concepts were there. We knew, like, some of the fundamentals, the underpinnings of the genetics, the protein science, the dynamic systems in molecular biology, and were able to chart a future that turned out to be accurate. I would have bet that six months in we would’ve learned it was impossible and have to scrap the whole thing. But we didn’t.

Richie: [00:03:46] So you finish school, you have this project, what happened from there?

Dan: [00:03:49] So it was actually slightly before I finished school. I met two other people who became my co-founders. One, Ethan Mirsky, another graduate student in the same lab as me, a year behind, but had this unique background that he’d started a company out of MIT as an undergraduate working on digital signal processors. So back when you used to pick up the rotary dial telephone and, like, it went over copper and would always crackly, no matter if you’re calling your neighbor or overseas. The telecoms at some point started converting that analog signal to digital and piping it over fiber optics. And so he invented a way to convert those analog signals to digital on a chip and the dot.com revolution with telecoms, that was a big deal. And he started a company, it got acquired, and he came back to graduate school to become a biologist of all things. I still tease him about this. Yeah, he was a student in the same lab as me, working on a similar aspect of technology around secretion and salmonella.

[00:04:38] And then David Breslauer, who I met at UC Berkeley, had randomly decided that he wanted to figure out how spiders spin silk, and so he was building microfluidic devices to mimic how the spider takes a protein polymer we call silk, and turn it into a high performance fiber. And being the only three guys in the Bay Area working on silk, we got to know each other pretty darned quick. You know Ethan was a colleague of mine at school, we met David very early on and I think we were friends and colleagues, I’ll say two to three years, before we even talked about starting a company. What you’re going to do after graduate school is effectively an eternity away, so why do you need to think about it? And it was really when it came down to graduation that we decided “Hey, if I can make silk, and you can spin silk, maybe we can do something interesting together here in building a commercial application for this,” because we don’t think there’s any other way to pursue this technology than to try and commercialize it.

Richie: [00:05:28] Maybe we spend a minute just talking about the properties of silk and or what is so attractive about it, just to give everyone a foundation before we go deeper.

Dan: [00:05:36] Sure. Spider silk is one of the best examples of a material from nature that’s extremely high performance. They’re making these fibers that are made out of proteins, that are fine, high strength, stronger than steel by weight, six times tougher than Kevlar, completely biodegradable, made out of protein, non immunogenic, non allergenic. Basically you can put it in your body, it doesn’t create scar tissue or anything like that. And there’s a whole bunch of other interesting properties. And, you know, this is the basis of the whole Spider Man franchise of comics and movies, this idea of this super strong material that’s made from nature.

[00:06:09] We see that as one example of a whole category of materials that we’ve evolved on this planet over — call it three and a half to four billion years of life being here. And so, what we want to do is be able to take that performance property and replicate it on a mass scale. Because the problem with spiders is that if you put a bunch of them in a room together, and we did this in the very beginning, they basically eat each other. They don’t make much silk, they make a few milligrams and then they eat each other. And so farming them is totally out, and so you need to find some other way to do it. And we’re not novel in our desire here, people have been trying this for fiftyish years and no one’s ever succeeded.

Richie: [00:06:45] Why?

Dan: [00:06:46] Well one, you can’t farm spiders. That’s problem number one. We did that experiment, it wasn’t really thinking that it would work, we were actually studying the spider at the time, but we empirically observed the same data that everyone before us found. Second, the underlying technology, if you’re going to make a protein, that’s the same technology that Genentech uses to make a drug. And in the Pharma industry that started in the late 60s through now, you can tolerate effectively an infinite price point for a kilogram. You think about, if you get treated for a disease at a $100,000 treatment, and they give you maybe a gram of the protein, that’s a pretty valuable product, so you can afford almost any cost to make it. When you think about consumer products, or even industrial products, it’s a whole different scale. Orders of magnitude. You think about your apparel, you can’t tolerate prices much above hundreds, in a most extreme setting, of dollars per kilogram.

[00:07:39] And so essentially what I came to believe was that the technology that allowed biotech to scale was just not mature. And I just happened to come along, actually, in my belief, in hindsight — we as a team came along at about the moment, and we weren’t naive to this, but about the moment when you could conceivably pull it off. And that was part of our thesis actually is that, you know, I started graduate school as the third student in one of the first two labs in the world pursuing this whole new way of engineering biology, making biology a lot more direct, like an engineering science, for how you would build in features and functionality and control. And the belief was that we were at the cutting edge of a wave moving forward about the tools and techniques of biology getting better, and then we could tackle bigger and bigger problems, and spider silk was going to be a great early case that we could be successful around, and we just so happened to be the world’s experts at it as well.

Richie: [00:08:30] And so I guess one more kind of like layman’s question. When you talk about engineering biology in this new way, is there a simple way to give an example of what that means, comparatively to what it used to be, or didn’t exist before?

Dan: [00:08:43] Yeah. So in the old days, the less less old days, when I was an undergraduate, bioengineering was a field where it was essentially electro engineering for devices in the human body. So it’s like making pacemakers and making stents which are plastic or metal devices that go and prop open a vein or artery, or doing a hip replacement joint, like that was bioengineering, it was like mechanical and electro engineering for things that go in the human body. Now the new generation of bioengineers are thinking about cells as living machines or factories.

[00:09:15] This is kind of how we think about it. We use yeast to make our spider silk these days and that yeast cell is essentially a factory that’s programmed to make spider silk. Now yeast doesn’t normally make spider silk, only spiders make spider silk, but you’re able to program that in. And the idea is that you grow it in a contained environment, like doing beer or wine in the brewing process, something that the vast majority of the world has experienced at some point, a global scale technology, and that you can use it now to make something that is a consumer product that goes into things you wear. Much the same way that the biotech industry started out in the late 60s early 70s, like I said, making drugs. Insulin and human growth hormone were amongst the first products there. Now it’s something like 40 or 50% of approved drugs come from biotech. It is an absurd number. And there’s a lot of thought, as this technology underneath of it matures, of understanding that biology is not a black box like we used to think. It’s just a really complicated box.

[00:10:10] There’s going to be this whole continued explosion of that same growth trajectory of products launched in spaces that have never seen biotech before, and you’ll see it continually take over, because it enables all sorts of new features and functionality we’ve never been able to have before.

Richie: [00:10:22] Okay perfect. That makes a lot of sense. So you guys met as a team how did the company start? What were the first few months like, and kind of where was the directionality?

Dan: [00:10:31] So we first decided we were going to start a company in February 2009. Now we’re still students, we haven’t graduated. We don’t know anything about what we’re doing. I mean Ethan does cause Ethan has done a company before, but still, in hindsight we didn’t really know what we were doing. And we basically said, you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to graduate — David and I were going to graduate, Ethan was going to graduate in 2011. And so we decided that we could either, if we wanted to pursue the technology, go get postdocs, this is like the tried and true way to spend another five years in academia, not necessarily get a result, but spend five years in academia, we could get real jobs, or we could try and start company. And is we try and start a company maybe we could have some funding to try and do what we would do with postdocs anyway, but with a much more focused goal and a much bigger realization of what we hoped to achieve as graduate students. Because we always dreamed that we’d collaborate, I’d make silk, David would spin it, and it just never worked out. It works today. You know $90 million and seven years later.

[00:11:31] But we essentially decided that we would write some government grants, like good scientists do, and start the company and just kind of figure it out. We thought there was science risk here. So, most companies, when you look at startups, have market risk, “Will consumers buy the product?” and they have engineering risk, “Can you build the product?” And for modern startups most of the engineering risk is not really risk anymore because if you and I draw something on paper for software, we can inevitably find a way to make that happen. But you get companies like Bolt Threads, and there’s a whole class of these that we know pretty well now, that have what I consider scientific risk. So you might go out and do some experiments and realize the world doesn’t work the way you thought it did, so your company idea is never going to work. And so we believe that’s where we were. And so we spent 2009 kind of forming the company, writing grants. I think it was spring 2010 we got our first approval on grants and we use this because they send out your grants to all these famous researchers, so we thought “Well at least we’ll get feedback on how stupid we are.” Because usually you fail, like say 10% hit rate on grants. We wrote four or five of them, we got a 100% hit rate. And so that told us that we may still be stupid, but we were at least going to be in good company when we proved ourselves wrong.

[00:12:43] And so in May 2010 I basically graduated on a Friday, started work on a Monday, had a bench maybe like four foot long of bench space with nothing on it, got a box full of spiders mailed to me from our dude in the Everglades. And yea, got to work on building a lab and a company and technology from the ground up. And a month later David joined me. We spent about fifteen to eighteen months where we raised external funding beyond government grants, and just really built all the systems to show that we could take the genetics, make it work in the yeast, make some protein spin a fiber — and it was like the world’s worst fiber, it shattered like glass, if you took it out and when like that, it would just break into a million pieces. But it proved that we can do all the steps that we’ve never done before. As one team.

Richie: [00:13:27] OK. So you spend a year and a half-ish kind of de-risking the science of it and then what’s the next step, to go raise money and expand?

Dan: [00:13:34] Yea so I would say pretty early on we had some traction with the fundraising community, and we ended up in a story space that you dream of for a company. But I tell people, “This is great if it happens, but never count on it happening. So I’m going to tell you my story, but don’t try and replicate it.” Which is essentially, we met you know a series of venture capitalists that were very interested in what we were doing. They realized it was a very long term play. And by summer 2011 we basically had someone put a term sheet in front of us and say we want to fund the company for $5 million dollars. And at that point we were not actually looking for money. We were, you know, this is part of the beauty of coming out of graduate school, you’re used to making no money and being poor. And so, you know, a little bit of grant dollars to the tune of $750,000 was like infinite money to us.

[00:14:19] And so here’s now a term sheet for a $5 million dollar Series A. And we accepted that and started growing the company a bit, still growing slowly, we we have a doubling time of about 13 months. So you can just imagine it went from like two to then four for another thirteen months and then eight for another thirteen months. And if you want to be nerdy about it you can fit the curve with an R-squared of .998, which that’s actually really really good. So we were slow and steady in our growth rate, and that allowed us to continue to solve these science challenges along the way and kind of continually learn more about the systems. Because we believed that the beauty of biology as a source material for inspiration, and to make materials that are identical to that in biology, gives you one massive leg up over every other way that materials development is done. Most of the time when you develop materials, we as scientists, we would go do some experiments, you and I, we see what happens and then we hope we can find a use for it. And the vast majority of the time you can’t. When you take things out of biology you get to measure the properties of the final product before you ever make it. So we can go take spider silk, measure it, know that it is amazing, and the second thing is you get to cheat, you know biology has already solved the problem and can make the material. So you know that it’s fundamentally possible. It’s just a matter of time, money, and your understanding of the world.

Richie: [00:15:34] And so during this time did you have applications in mind? Or, how guided was where this would all be pointing?

Dan: [00:15:40] So part of the fact that people have been trying this for fifty years is that lots of applications had have kind of been postulated. No one had ever made enough material to actually test any of that. So there was some risk there. But the obvious place was to go to the technical materials, the bulletproof vest, the long haul fishing lines, like that kind of stuff. We pursued many of those early on, kind of in a market exploration phase. But we pretty quickly honed in on consumer product, and that was one of the things I think I brought to the table, was my wife’s a designer. She worked in the space and I knew just enough to be dangerous, to say, “Well here’s where consumers have loved a similar material in silk for 5000 years.” You’ve got an industry that addresses literally every person on the planet. It’s massive, when you look at the global reach of soft goods. And you find a dynamic range of pricing power of  about four orders of magnitude. So you can find two dollar T-shirts, you can find $20,000 T-shirts. And functionally, there was going to be a place to play at lots of different price points there. As a consumer product that could support a new technology, if you continue, because even when you launch it there’s going to be kinks. There’s going to be cost problems, quality problems, whatever it is. And so give yourself the place to play and find a way to build a home and grow from there.

Richie: [00:16:54] So, raise the five million, company kept growing, when was the first point at which you started talking externally to partners and/or when did that first kind of bite come?

Dan: [00:17:05] We were constantly talking to external partners, we’re just scientists, we don’t know anything. We kept thinking we would dig further into many of these companies and find that they had a whole team of biologists, chemists, and physicists hiding in a room in the back. And it took us about two years to actually convince ourselves that was never going to happen. Which is true. Although it’s very in vogue now to hire chemists, biologists, and physicists at apparel companies. But for, you know, I would say between 2012 on, we’re kind of in constant dialogue with folks there.

[00:17:34] And we were kind of balancing three things together. We’re balancing technology development, scale development, and kind of business development. So offtake or demand. For most of the early days it was really technology development and then putting our foot in scale development. I would say we spent the last three years really focused on scale. And it went from like multiple iterations of “We think we know what we’re doing” and we figure it out, and we get the advantage of being able to learn from many people who came before us. But even then, there’s a lot of nuance to work out. Now, today we understand it. We think we’re in a good spot. But along that time it was kind of balancing the, you know my personal philosophy here, “Don’t go make promises you don’t know you can keep.” You know, part of the reason we didn’t show up publicly until June 2015 I think, we were in Bloomberg Businessweek, that was the first article we ever had written about us that we actually actively sought out and participated in, and that’s like basically five years of staying in stealth mode, because we wanted to make sure that we’d solved the real problems before we were out there talking about where we were headed next.

Richie: [00:18:33] So I’m curious to talk a bit about the scaling piece. You had these lab experiments that were working on a smaller scale. I guess, one, how did you approach it? And two, what did scale mean or what does it mean?

Dan: [00:18:44] So when we think about our technology, there’s a lot of shortcuts you can always take in the lab that make compelling product and feel like they’re making progress, but in reality when they work you have to go back and undo them and redo them in a way that you can make — you think about consumer product — metric ton scale quantity or bigger amounts of material. And even one metric ton, you know, my rough rule of thumb, a metric ton of material is 10,000 units of apparel. That’s not a very big…

Richie: [00:19:15] No.

Dan: [00:19:15] And so a lot of what we did in the early days, part of why we were silent for so long is we completely reinvented the technology stack. This is what wasn’t going on in graduate school. The technology I was using graduate school would never achieve that scale. And so we kind of rebuilt it from the ground up. And that rebuild allowed us to really put the fundamentals in place. Now, a handful of those things still exist today. We made some smart bets, but we hired people far smarter than ourselves who’ve reinvented it multiple times over. But essentially, proof of concept, and then building to have processes that are ready for scale — so we use fermentation, we use the downstream processing to recover the silk or the protein, and then how you spin fibers — those all have to be things that can be done inexpensively at hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of metric tons scale one day, to really make this an exciting, world changing business for both performance properties and the sustainability side.

Richie: [00:20:08] Is it normal from the scientific kind of outlook, to know that seven, ten, twenty, thirty years is nothing? Because I assume to a lot of people in the fashion apparel space, a lot of people in the investor space, they’re looking at generally, objectively shorter time horizons. And I’m curious, one, did you all go in mentally knowing how long this would take, and two, what was it like kind of convincing or conveying that to partners and people around you?

Dan: [00:20:32] When I talk about these deep science companies a lot of us call them moonshot companies. They’re ones that the timelines are egregiously different than most of the things you see out there. You know, they’re not a quarter to quarter, or a quick flip in a year kind of win. And the idea is that most of them fail, usually in interesting and dramatic ways. The concept though is that when they do work, not only are they long timeline companies, but they have massive barriers to entry and they’re giant wins when they work. And they change the world in a special way. I think that’s the idea here at Bolt as well.

Dan: [00:21:04] I think we had a pretty clear understanding of how long biology takes. Biology as a technology is in its infancy as well for manufacturing products like this, for consumer. And that timeline is always going to be long. I think what I found though, as I dug in with people who have operated companies, almost everyone would tell me that, in reality, great companies take ten years to get started, and then most of the money is made in the ten years after that. I think it’s kind of a delusion we tell ourselves that the company is going to be up and running in two years and wildly profitable for the next however long. Usually when you look at the history, they’re all overnight successes on like the ten thousandth night or something like that.

Richie: [00:21:43] So you mentioned the barriers to entry piece. I think it’s also interesting to look at this space, because generally speaking, there are very few barriers to entry, especially from maybe a patent defensibility perspective. So like, you can’t patent design, generally speaking, within fashion apparel, all stuff like that. Was it clear that the closer you were to the inception of these materials, or creation, the more defensible it would be than if you moved downstream. So you want to be upstream.

Dan: [00:22:06] So I think what we learned very very quickly, and part of what I can bring to the table here is, there’s history; industrial revolution starts with the cotton gin, which is a way to process materials to make textiles easier to make. And it had massive value. If you look at the invention of nylon in the 1930s, it made DuPont the modern chemistry company, from being a gunpowder company. You know, you look at the value of Lycra before it went off patent, and that brand was one of the most valuable top ten in the world. You look at what W.L. Gore has done with Gore-Tex; when you get this right, it’s unbeatable, because you have legal protection for 20 years. And you have a differentiating property that consumers can access and look at and add value to. Even things as straightforward as Nike Air. It’s not a chemistry innovation but it’s a materials innovation that was protectable that went in. And so when the examples come up, they’re quite good and they’re quite protectable.

[00:22:58] Quite early on though, we recognize that that’s where the protection is, but not where the value is harvested. Most of the value in the industry is captured at the consumer, probably largely because nothing else is protectable. So, I think we learned pretty quickly that while the protectable part was far upstream, you were going to have to be willing to play at multiple parts of the value chain in order to harvest all the value in what the innovation would be.

Richie: [00:23:22] All right, so, raising money, started growing…

Dan: [00:23:24] Raised more money.

Richie: [00:23:26] Yea. So, did you know, going in, how capital intensive this would be?

Dan: [00:23:29] Yeah, I mean the underlying technology of using biology as a manufacturing — it’s not too dissimilar from a whole host of companies that manufactured biofuels or food ingredients or any number of things in the 2000s, before and after. So we had no illusions that it was going to cost tens of millions of dollars. I actually at this point have a strong strong strong suspicion that any billion dollar plus valuation company is going to require 100 million dollars of capital or more. It’s just a matter of when, right? Science-intensive businesses require it more up front, software intensive businesses require it in the back end for marketing and scale, but you’re going to need to raise a lot of capital. And so I think we knew that along the way. And we just try to keep the burn rate low and to try and stay frugal as we understood what was coming up ahead of us and where to deploy capital to really solve the challenges that have to be solved in order to build this business into something world changing.

Richie: [00:24:21] And so talk a bit about how the company grew up to that moment in 2015 where you started to take the lid off of what you were doing publicly.

Dan: [00:24:28] At the time we thought we had, you know, not only can we do this at lab scale but we had like a fermentation process that we could make silk and we could make tens or hundreds of grams or something like that, we could spin fibers. We were making little bits of yarn and fabric and things like that. We felt pretty good about it, like “Hey we’re doing all these things in roughly the way you’d want to do this at scale.” And we know that, from where we want to go next, that we really need to take this up another level. Start engaging with the public and start telling stories, because at the end of the day, if you’re going to make a company that makes products that go to consumers, some day you’ve got to start talking to consumers. And I think it was 2015 when we felt, like we had just raised a bunch of money, and then said, you know, “Now is the time for talking to consumers.” So, trying to make them aware of our story. Because as much as I’d prefer to wait until the moment when we say “Hey, guess what, surprise, here’s this world changing innovation,” the history of those types of reveals or stories don’t go so well. Right? I have a couple that spring to mind, but the idea that you’re going to just say, “Guess what, here’s twenty stories at once,” is just I mean.

Richie: [00:25:31] “You just flip a switch.”

Dan: [00:25:33] Yea, nothing in life happens that way. And so, you need to start the story, start engaging people, and we were pretty sure that our first audience was going to be technology driven audience. The field we came from of biotechnology has been super into our story. There’s actually peers of mine at other companies who carry one of our ties around and talk about like, “This is biotechnology! this is consumer product! This is where the future is going!” And I think this kind of slow and steady, of organically building the interest base and the customer base, is the one that wins the race. Rarely do you see something rocket out of nowhere that doesn’t then rocket back to nowhere very quickly.

Richie: [00:26:06] So what was the first, kind of, or I guess I’ll ask two parts. One, what were the sort of products you were testing the stuff with internally? And then what was the first product, kind of, externally available on whatever scale it may be, where people could start to do this or use it?

Dan: [00:26:20] So internally we actually struggled quite a bit with what product meant, right? Because think about our scale, like, is product the protein powder, like that you can do whatever you want with? There was a period where we thought maybe that was a product. And it probably is, just I don’t think it’s the right place to enter the market. Is the fiber — is the fiber as a filament on a spool? As a bale of staple? Is yarn the product? Is fabric the product, is it knit, is it woven, is it 3D knit, or is it finished consumer product?

[00:26:47] And I think, you know, we played with a lot of all of that, and we’ve built this steady drumbeat of understanding and metrics around “What is product quality for each stage.” And in each one I think we came to the conclusion that the economics are harvested at the consumer. We need to be able to understand how the consumer interacts with the technology, whether it’s us or through a partner, whether Best Made or a partner, or Bolt Threads. And if we don’t understand that, how can we be a valuable partner? And so, really what we did is we pushed in this direction where we ended up with this knit silk tie as like a first demonstration of a product. And it was at South by Southwest, I launched it early March 2017, and made 50 of them, released them to consumers in a way where we only had 50 so we did like a raffle to get a spot to then buy the tie for pi dollars — like we just nerded it out in a big way, and they sold out, like that, they were gone. Really that was a way to introduce Blot Threads the world in a fun way that was unique, but not kind of a mass market introduction yet. And we played with lots of stuff internally before that, and we’ve been playing with lots of stuff after that. But it was kind of a fun way to go with the consumer and show that we understood all the steps in the process. And the funny thing about it was, I viewed it more as an internal milestone than an external, even though it was very visible, and anyone who was watching us before that and said, “Bolt Threads finally launches something” or like “Spider silk finally not vaporware.” Like, it was actually for me more about our team. We’re trying to build a team that, really big success should be delighting consumers with features, functionalities, products they couldn’t imagine before.

[00:28:20] And, you know, until this moment, success for us was, we’d look at like graphs internally and be like “That graph went up and to the right, and like it went up two fold.” And those were massive successes, and this recalibrated what success meant, that it went out and it was like on a model or on a person, and someone was on their Instagram bragging about the Bolt Threads tie they were wearing and how all their friends were so jealous. That was a huge success. What it did is it showed this whole team that’s largely biotechnologists, chemical engineers, these are people who can work in biotech for an entire career, never launch a product, and be hugely successful. And you think about consumer products, like, there’s a quarterly drumbeat to this, and you launch so many SKUs every quarter, we needed to bridge that divide in some way. And that’s what the tie really did for us.

[00:29:03] Now, the external piece was a far bigger success than I would have ever guessed. I appreciate all of our — all the people who followed company, who participated in that, and hope that they’re on board as we do stuff through Best Made and other outlets this year, next year and then after. Cause the goal here is to grow in quality, volume and channel, continuously.

Richie: [00:29:22] I’m curious to talk a bit about, kind of the interplay between form and function for this material, in terms of, I would say the more obvious things seem to be function, but talk about that interplay and how you’ve put it to use and played with that tension.

Dan: [00:29:35] So in some ways what we’ve learned is we have paralysis by too many options here, in that, when you can do so many things, focusing in on the one thing to do can be quite difficult. Like we get really caught up in function a lot, because we think about all the almost infinite functionalities. I’ve said this many times before, but if you look at kind of the fundamentals of how the polymer works, there’s about ten to 175 different possibilities. Now there’s only 10 to the 90 atoms in the known universe, so you can’t even make one copy of all the possibilities, with all the atoms in the universe. So you can literally go on forever making new things. And when that’s the case, how do you not get caught up in functionality? And so I think we have to have this healthy balance between how much new we invent and how much we kind of just play and productize with the things we can make. Because if you think about us, 10,075 different polymers. Take the one, the one spider’s polymer we make today, that can be spun into an almost infinite array of fibers, different geometry shapes, denures, like all that stuff made into a wide array of yarns; blended, not blended — into a wide array of fabrics; woven, knits, 3D knits — and it’s like different products, you know, everything from underwear to shirts, to pants to whatever, shoes. In some ways, we feel that on the far end, you take one function and then you let everyone play with the form and we just make it fast and cheap and easy.

[00:30:57] This is kind of the mantra around here: make the marginal cost of anything zero, so we can play. Because I think what we learn is that the scientific method is like, come up a with hypothesis first — your hypothesis is almost always wrong. Like ninety nine percent of the time, it’s wrong. And you learn from the data, that something else was true. I think we’re seeing this with some of the data driven direct consumer approaches in consumer companies, where people go out with this idea and it’s like “Oh this looks beautiful with this color palette,” in the A/B test and like, the bright pink button sells more conversions, so make everything bright pink. And it was not intuitive. And so, we’re trying to make it so on the form side, we can just play. Just play, try lots of things, launch lots of things, make a lot of happy customers, and figure out what resonates.

Richie: [00:31:37] So I want to talk about kind of price point and sustainability together. So, I think a lot of what we see, and we can call this like the Elon curve basically —

Dan: [00:31:45] Did you coin that?

Richie: [00:31:46] I just made it up as I was thinking of the question — which is, the theory goes that the best way to basically empower sustainability is to do it in a cost effective way, where it basically renders all the other options either as expensive, if not more expensive. And I think around sustainability, generally speaking, a lot of what are known as quote unquote “sustainable fabrics, fibers” have often been more expensive than the cheap stuff you can buy elsewhere, which makes a very, kind, of simple decision for a lot of cash strapped entities. So I’m curious, how do you approach this and what has the cost curve been, and maybe what will it be, through a sustainability lens?

Dan: [00:32:19] So I would just add one more caveat around sustainability, in that oftentimes it costs more and performs worse. And it’s that combination that’s the real killer.

Richie: [00:32:28] It’s a double compromise.

Dan: [00:32:29] Like “Oh, I have to suck it up and deal with the fact that the thing holds stains or holds odor or something like that. But at least I know it’s sustainable.” Right, you just have like this like overwhelming belief that sustainability is worth immense personal sacrifice. You know, I think about when I was a kid my best friend’s mom bought all the organic stuff, and we’d go over them like “Oh our clothes aren’t going to be as clean or the toothpaste is going to be kind of crappy, compared to like the good stuff.” So when we think about it, you know, what we think we’re doing is both more sustainable and higher performance. And that gives you some wiggle on the cost curve. Right? You look at a brand like Tesla. They are not the cheapest, in some ways, like, you look at a Model S, and you will spend much more or a Model S than an equivalent BMW or Audi or something like that. So in some ways they have pricing power there, but they sell you an amazing, sexy product that you want to drive and it is to some degree more sustainable. For us, you know, we think if we’re delivering performance beyond anything else you can get out there, and sustainability, you have enough leeway on pricing that you can make a product and launch it. Over time, if you want to change the world and make sustainability ubiquitous, you’ve got to be competitive on cost. We know the fundamentals, we know we can get there. But there’s a matter of, there’s today, and there then, and I don’t know what the time in between holds. And if we think this is something the world needs on the far end of sustainability, when you’re down in the price curve, you do the world zero good by not existing three years from now. And so you find ways to make it work as you bring down that cost curve and go up and scale.

Dan: [00:34:04] So for us, you know, when we think about sustainability, we think about the fact that our materials come from renewable resources, from sugars whether that’s biomass or corn or sugar beets or potatoes or wherever you find it, you grow it. Sunlight turned into sugar. And then at the end of its lifecycle it’s a protein based fiber that literally any cell on the planet can eat and break down into amino acids and recycle into new proteins. And so we see it as like, everything we do, every polymer we make has this kind of cradle to cradle type of sustainability there, which I was a little disheartened when I first experienced the industry and found that sustainability ended when the consumer took possession, because it was like, “Oh, well it’s your problem now. The fact that you threw it in the landfill, that’s why it’s not sustainable.” It’s like, “Well what do you think was going to do with the thing when I was done?” So, we think that we have this baseline of sustainability, and when we look and go talk to forward thinking brands, as well as our own research with consumers, we find that in consumer apparel, because it speaks so closely to our own personal identity — how we look everyday, how we present to others — that young people and affluent people care deeply, and will pay for sustainability. And if you’re any brand on this planet, anyone who listens to your podcast, like I bet they would love to have the demographics of young and affluent, like those sound like pretty good ones to me. And so we think there’s a megatrend of people who are moving in this direction, and they may not have all the purchasing power today, but you know their behavior patterns are set and they’re going to come into their own over time.

[00:35:30] And so, at the same time our cost curve just goes down over time. Scale, we improve the technology, whether that’s the biology, the processes, all of that stuff. And so we really believe in “Make something good enough to really surprise and delight customers,” and just continue on that path. The real beauty of this is that it’s platform technology, so as we improve the cost curve, future things we invent fall in the improvements.

Richie: [00:35:53] So I just want to talk a bit about now, kind of working our way up to the present day, or to the two bigger announcements that have come, and fill in what I’m missing; the acquisition of Best Made Co. and then also the Stella McCartney partnership that was announced in the last few months. Maybe speak to each of those, and if there are things I’m missing in the last few years, fill them in.

Dan: [00:36:09] OK. So we announced a fantastic partnership with Stella McCartney. I absolutely adore the brand, as many people who follow her over the years, you can imagine the mission alignment from what we just talked about was sustainability, as well as kind of the animal friendly practices that come with our material. We know we were always excited about working with Stella, but now we can’t imagine like, how can we go faster and faster to make more and more of her product using our materials, and tell amazing stories to her consumer.

[00:36:37] And then contrast that to an announcement we made about a year ago with Patagonia, similar story; absolutely adore the team at Patagonia, adore their brand, what they stand for and the quality of the product, and the way we could tell this performance means sustainability story, but tell that story to very different constituencies. There’s some Venn diagram overlap of Stella and Patagonia’s customers. But it’s not every Stella customer is a Patagonia customer and every Patagonia is a Stella a customer. And there’s two different groups of people who are now going to experience this technology in this story as a core piece of those brands in a really exciting way going forward, and we couldn’t be more delighted about that.

[00:37:13] On the other end of the spectrum, we have Best Made Co., and that’s a acquisition we did a while ago, I announced it in July. And the idea there is that we’re doing something new. There are no other companies out there that are like a new polymer generation, to make materials to go in the soft goods that we wear on our bodies. So there’s no model to follow. And the one thing we’ve found is that we think that the majority of the economics are dominated by the consumer facing portion of these businesses. And we cannot be a good partner to other brands if we don’t understand exactly what they’re going through in the marketplace. And a part of doing that was to have a brand ourselves and be able to do experiments and try things.

And so, absolutely enamored with Peter Buchanan-Smith, who started Best Made Co., and his brand. And the idea of joining forces was completely obvious to us, that we could build something where, not only do you have a partnership, but you’re embedded going both ways. Their design and brand folks can sit in with scientists, we can build the relationship and the lexicon to be able to develop products, because a lot of what happens in materials development is you’re dreaming of a future that there’s no rational reason to believe it exists, except for the fact that you believe in your head that you can develop that material into reality. And being able to get feedback that is as close to market feedback as possible is quite critical. And so being able to talk to designers, people who understand the customer and bring that back, if it’s at all possible to do, being under one umbrella is going to be the easiest way to do it. And so we felt that was a critical piece to have involved, and we use that as a way to really understand and talk to brand partners in a unique way. And it turns out Best Made is an awesome brand as well, they make great product, they have a devoted fan base who are very passionate. And I think they’re very excited about unique product. Best Made has a long history of unique collaborations and unique products; everything from hard goods to soft goods, and the idea is that Bolt Threads is here to help find additional collaborations as well as provide one-of-a kind materials for amazing products in the future. And we’ll have some interesting stuff on that later this year.

Richie: [00:39:18] What’s been the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned since the company’s inception?

Dan: [00:39:24] Can I say that the tie was, you know, a what — ? $40, $50 million first product? It was pretty expensive. One of the cheapest lessons, I think, was how right we were to go in the consumer direction early on. We had not spent much money before we made that decision, and I think it was pretty obvious to us living it full time. I don’t think externally it was quite so obvious, but to us it was absolutely obvious pretty early on that that had to be the way we went, just from the whole combination of variables that have to come together to make startups work — are a mess. And it was really obvious to us that that was going to be — if you could pull that off, that was going to be by far the best way to launch this company and build something that could really change the world in a major way, and introduce a new technology stack in the way we manufacture products in a more sustainable way, and higher performance, it only could happen that way.

[00:40:14] Most expensive lesson? We’ve been pretty good at micro optimizing. So, any given moment in time, we’re pretty good at looking at the data in front of us and making what is the rational, right decision. We’ve rarely done something that was “so crazy.” Of course when you do scale up you have things where like, you do a run and you’re like “ah, well.” I run a fermenter, so we pay someone and we do a fermentation and it’s tens of thousands of dollars, and things like that, and they don’t give you the data you want. But if you look at it one way you say it’s a failure, if you look at it another way you go, it was a learning opportunity, and we learned a lot about all these other pieces when you pull the data apart. We’ve never had something that felt like a multi million dollar failure to me. We’re constantly trying to find ways to make the failures less expensive, so that we don’t mind making them. So I would say, our failures haven’t been as expensive, unless you say the tie was the $50 million tie, then they’ve been relatively small.

Richie: [00:41:05] What application are you most excited about for this? I’ll maybe limit that by saying “what end consumer product are you most excited about?”

Dan: [00:41:13] So I don’t want to spoil the thunder of the research teams and what they’re working on. But we have, I’ll give a few hints. We have a product for women’s ready-to-wear that I think will be a killer application. I think people are going to be surprised and delighted by what we do there. I don’t know where in the pipeline that falls out, but we know what it is, we know how it works. The one problem though with killer applications is the volume requirements get big, and now we have to focus on scale again for a while to make sure we can meet the demand.

[00:41:45] The other one I really like, and this is another new technology that’s kicking through the pipeline, I think we have a very interesting next-to-skin application. It’s not the intuitive one everyone will find obvious, it will be unique. And we know it works, it’s great. It’s got to work through the development pipeline and get to consumers, I mean, and those are the visible ones. I’ve got some crazy ideas for later, but the crazy ones just sound like, bat-shit crazy. But those will come after you start seeing even the first products from the spider silk hit the market. And so we see this thing where, my core belief around most technologies is that, this early in the infancy, we actually don’t know what the best application is going to be. We’re going to discover it years later, and it’s going to surprise even us. I learned this early on, I talked to a bunch of my designer friends, and they were like, “What do you dream of at night for your fabric?” Like “I’d kind of like something like wool, but better, that cost less than wool.” And I was like, “Really?” And so I was like “I would like 2% more stretch my Lycra.”

Richie: [00:42:42] That’s incremental.

Dan: [00:42:43] That’s your, yea, like that’s your grand dream? It’s like, no no, you’ve got to dream big about all sorts of these crazy things you see out there in nature.

Richie: [00:42:50] And so what are you most excited about in the next one to five years for the company?

Dan: [00:42:56] So in the next year I’m excited about evergreen commercial product hitting the market, doing things like the tie are great, just the beginning. But showing that there’s a commercial cadence to this, I think is absolutely critical. I’m excited to get feedback, I’m excited and terrified to get feedback from consumers. And the final product, we’ve worked on this for seven years and it’s by no means as perfect as it could ever be. This thing is a technology that will improve for the rest of my life and beyond. But I’m excited to start getting that feedback, because I think great businesses live in and thrive on the feedback from consumers. And the best brands in the world don’t view that as a problem to explain away or avoid, but to embrace, and invent the future that can be. Because if you’re doing that, in all these companies, and most of life, you’re your own worst enemy. If you’re competing against yourself and doing it well, you’re going to be a great company, you’re going to be a great technology, you’re going to make great product, you’re going to make people happy, do fine as a business. And I think that’s something I’m really excited about, and that’s a long story. That’s not just even five years, that’s like, I can spend the rest of my career doing that.

Richie: [00:44:00] Finally, where’s the name from?

Dan: [00:44:02] We really understood that we’re going in a consumer direction. That we wanted to have a brand, in some fashion, that went to consumers. Probably a technology umbrella brand. We actually renamed the company in 2014, and we came up with Bolt Threads and we loved it for a couple of reasons. One, you’ve got bolts of fabric, and we work on textiles and fabric. Two, we’re a bunch of nerdy engineers and nuts and bolts are, like, right there for us. We build a lot of stuff. And then this idea of, like, the bolt of inspiration. It just played really well. We loved it. It really resonated with us from very early on. We kind of fell in love with it and it went from there.

Richie: [00:44:38] Awesome. Thanks so much for talking.

Dan: [00:44:48] Thanks for having me.

Richie: [00:44:48] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads Podcast. Sign up for Ripcord at loosethreads.com, and feel free to leave review on iTunes. We always appreciate it. Thanks to George Drake Jr. for editing this episode. It was awesome talking with Dan and seeing Bolts’ facilities out in San Francisco. Full sustainability comes from the root materials, and the circular nature of what Bolt is building will have existential implications on the future of apparel. We have a great roster of upcoming guests including David Barton of David Kind, Ariel Kaye of Parachute Home, and Vanessa Stofenmacher of Vrai & Oro. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.