Photo/IllutrationKazuhide Sekiyama with fibers made from “Brewed Protein” at the factory inside Spiber Inc. headquarters in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture (Shogo Koshida)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

A young Japanese entrepreneur has spun gold after a 15-year effort to produce synthetic spider silk, something U.S. and European companies have long tried to achieve.

The payoff is this: Strands of spider silk are stronger than steel and more flexible than nylon, properties that offer a host of commercial applications.

Kazuhide Sekiyama, 36, said his dream fiber, called “Brewed Protein,” is now being put to practical use.

He started out by analyzing spider genes and used his own technology to synthesize genes that can produce proteins with amino acid sequences tailored for specific usage. Proteins are produced through fermentation by micro-organisms injected into which the genes were injected. The proteins are then refined and assembled into fibers.

This past June, popular Japanese fashion brand Sacai showed off T-shirts made with Brewed Protein threads during Paris Men’s Fashion Week.

Another Japanese brand, Yuima Nakazato, also used the newly developed material woven into a fabric similar to silk satin for its entire couture collection.

Sekiyama's timing could not be better as the fashion industry increasingly is under pressure to produce sustainable products.

Brewed Protein has attracted attention as a groundbreaking material because it is not derived from petroleum. Sekiyama said he has received a string of offers from famous European brands.

His light bulb moment to pursue spider silk research came during a conversation he had with fellow students at Keio University, where he majored in environment and information studies, during a drinking session.

He recalled that his friends started talking about the “strongest” insect. One member of the party plumped for hornets because of their poisonous sting. But the group concluded spiders must be stronger because they capture hornets in their webs.

Inspired, Sekiyama wasted no time in collecting several dozen spiders in a mountain area near the university and devouring academic publications to bone up on the issue.

He moved into full-scale study mode in 2004 and set up a start-up company called Spiber Inc. at the age of 24 with two partners in 2007.

In 2015, Spiber tied up with sports apparel manufacturer Goldwin Inc. in a joint research and development project to improve the strength, flexibility and durability of fibers.

The material is being touted for a range of fields, including automobiles, medical care, architecture and space development.

In December, Goldwin is set to release an outdoor jacket called Moon Parka from its The North Face brand that utilizes Brewed Protein.

Spiber has raised more than 30 billion yen ($274.47 million) in capital from an affiliate of Toyota Motor Corp., Cool Japan Fund Inc. and other investors. It is building a factory in Thailand to bolster its production output.

The first shipments from the Thai factory will be in 2021, and the company’s production volume is expected to increase 100-fold from the current 5 to 6 tons.

Spiber owns more than 240 patents, including those pending.

The company, headquartered in the countryside in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, has 224 employees, of which 30 percent are locals. Ten percent of its employees are from outside Japan.

It also operates a unique management style by running its own nursery schools for employees and allowing staff members a big say in how much they should be paid.

Sekiyama said he learned how competitions for resources create conflicts after watching documentary footage about the Rwanda genocide when he was a junior high school student.

“It all started when I thought about what I could do,” he said. “My dream is to promote world peace.”