Bolt Threads Unveils Its First Synthetic Spider Silk Product: Necktie or Noose?

Last week, San Francisco-based Bolt Threads unveiled its first product for customers: a necktie made from its synthetic spider silk fiber. Bolt Threads’ product launch includes 50 limited edition neckties that consumers can purchase through a lottery hosted on the company website. Selected participants will have the opportunity to buy the necktie for $314.15 on March 14.

Bolt Threads uses genetically engineered yeast to produce synthetic spider silk proteins via fermentation. After harvesting, purifying, and drying the protein to a powder, Bolt Threads wet-spins it into a yarn-like fiber. For its necktie, Bolt Threads weaves the yarn into a chevron pattern representing the molecular structure of the spider silk proteins. The company recently built a new 11,000 ft2 fiber spinning facility to scale up its manufacturing capacity.

Most notable about the product launch is Bolt Threads’ stellar marketing strategy. From the star-studded models for its product, to the “pi” theme of its launch (3.1415), to the video sending its first spider silk necktie to Stan Lee (creator of Spider Man), Bolt Threads really sets itself up for global marketing and sponsorship. However, those who have closely followed the synthetic spider silk space in the past year will inevitably ask, “Where is Patagonia in this product launch?” Bolt Threads announced the partnership with Patagonia in May 2016 along with a $50 million Series C funding round, but never disclosed a timeline, target application, nor product. The lack of Patagonia’s involvement in Bolt Threads’ first product launch does raise some red flags about the partners’ progress, especially when Bolt Threads’ competitors Spiber Inc. and AMSilk both expect products on the market this year with partners Goldwin and adidas, respectively.

Overall, Bolt Threads’ product launch highlights two critical issues that all synthetic spider silk developers will need to overcome: cost and scalability. Each Bolt Threads necktie is priced at a steep $314.15 and requires more than 55 miles (88.5 km) of lab-spun spider silk filament. Bolt Threads’ competitors Spiber Inc. and AMSilk both target products that highlight performance of spider silk as a selling point for its expedition jacket and running shoes, respectively (see the webinar “The New Face of Bio-based: How Performance Enables Sustainability in Tomorrow’s Products”). While Bolt Threads’ necktie does not highlight the performance aspects of spider silk, its first application does target a niche fashion accessory that can be sold at a premium and requires low volume of materials per unit. To this extent, the necktie hits the “sweet-spot” as a demonstration prototype, but misses the mark as a long-term commercialization strategy. The next step for Bolt Threads is crucial as it will need to translate the momentum from its necktie product launch into a successful product/prototype that integrates its spider silk as a high-performance material not just a fancy accessory. If Bolt Threads doesn’t forge a clear commercial strategy post-product launch (with or without Patagonia), its necktie could eventually become a noose that drags an overhyped Silicon Valley venture to failure.

By: Victor Oh