Nature Based Solutions
by Bolt Threads
David, tell me a bit about yourself and the work you do at Bolt:
I’m David Breslauer, the Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer at Bolt Threads. I have a PhD in Bioengineering, but really my background is quite varied. I just like learning things. First, it was all computers and technology. And then came biology. And ultimately, that evolved into this idea of what could you build with biology. I became a material scientist because I like things you can feel, things that are visceral.
At Bolt we are a group of scientists and engineers inspired by nature to create better materials for a better world. Materials that have a smaller environmental footprint, and can replace materials we use and know and love; for example we produce b-silk protein a bio-based, biodegradable alternative to silicone elastomers in beauty and hair care products and Mylo, our vegan mycelium-based alternative to animal leather. We believe there’s a world where we can commercialize these biomaterials and use our technology to make better consumer products.
What inspired your research in the very beginning?
Ultimately, at the highest level, all of our research is inspired by nature, and the phenomenal materials found abundantly in its ecosystems. We tend to think, because we’ve all been raised around plastics, that high performance materials mean that they must stay and exist forever in the environment. But if you look to nature, there’s tons of inspiring materials that exist that are inherently circular; whole ecosystem have evolved to be circular, you know, a tree grows, leaves fall, then are reabsorbed into the soil, they get degraded by fungi, bacteria, they reabsorb, giving nutrients back to the soil. So how do we leverage that natural knowledge of the Earth? How do we look to nature for ideas and inspiration so that humans at scale can be more circular and integrated into the environment?
There is a child inside that is fascinated with Nature, tell me about that child:
Oh, you know, no one’s ever asked me that. Actually as a child, my first obsession was computers. I learned so much about technology and technology development, but somehow I felt like, at least in that era of working with computers, late 80s, early 90s, I felt like what I was doing was very isolated, it wasn’t a connected world. And then I learned about DNA and that really changed how I thought. This whole idea that I could use those same concepts of programming to understand how biology worked, to get insights into how we actually interact with the world and how the world functions, it all of a sudden felt like oh, this is what I want to apply all my knowledge towards - building an interconnected world using biology.
Is this how you all imagined a company built on mycelium?
Oh yeah, absolutely. This vision of interconnectedness, this appreciation is particularly clear with mycelium. Mycelium serves as our ecological connective tissue. It’s a sprawling, interconnected web that breaks down organic matter and brings nutrients to plants and trees throughout the forest. Mushrooms are the fruit, but mycelium is an underappreciated and unknown part of the mushroom story, and it’s literally been just under our feet for billions of years.
At Bolt, we have developed a state-of-the-art process to grow and transform mycelium into a high-quality alternative for animal and synthetic-based leather. The process begins with mycelium cells grown on beds of sawdust and other organic material. Billions of cells grow to form an interconnected 3D network which is processed and finished to make Mylo.
Diversity and the cooperativity among and within the ecosystem. Everything is working together. There’s a togetherness that can be observed.
Biomimicry is learning from nature, or nature-based solutions, what have you learned from working with Nature?
There are so many and they can be philosophical or can be practical. It’s been, it’s been quite an adventure. Learning from nature has become an obsession, the idea of all these materials out there. I mean, it’s phenomenal. Think about barnacles on a ship. There’s a whole industry to try to get barnacles off because they do such a good job of adhering under saltwater to ship hulls, but how did they get that adhesive? Why do we need complex petroleum derived synthetic chemistry to make adhesives when biology has already found an ecologically friendly answer?
What does utopia mean to you?
Nature can be brutal and chaotic and, particularly amongst mammals, challenging to maintain balance. So utopia, in many ways, it’s the aspiration and the process by which we continue to get to a more perfect, healthier, more cooperative ecosystem. And by that I mean both humans and nature and humans with each other. It’s not a destination. The human population keeps growing, so inevitably, there’s always going to be new things we have to do in new areas with new resources as needs change. How do we maintain balance while still allowing humans to flourish? Utopia is doing that as sustainably as possible to create a sense of harmony in a world that continues to expand.
How can utopia be applied to push your work forward?
I think perfection is imperfect as a goal. It’s an aspiration, but it’s not the final destination. It’s a constant reminder of where you’re going and why to help guide decisions and move in the right direction.
For example, at Bolt we use principles of Green Chemistry when producing our materials to protect both people and planetary health. Understanding that our choices are pragmatic and we are making a series of decisions, potentially trade-offs, for balance vs perfection.
We need to walk towards a vision, we even need to crawl, walk and run towards a vision. But all too often, we can get so fixated on the ideal that we end up not taking the steps to get there. We need alternative, better materials now; they might not be the ideal, circular, perfect material immediately, but having the long-term goal and making decisions to drive toward that goal is what we strive for.
It’s very easy to get so caught up in the idea that there’s no point if it’s not perfect. But you know, nature isn’t perfect (yet), and nature has a billions years head start on doing exactly that.
How should we all aim to be more like mushrooms? How can mycelium guide us towards collective liberation? [Guide our culture]
There is so much we don’t know yet about fungi, but one way we can leverage their knowledge as our guide is around connection. Fungi are an integral part of our ecosystems - connecting plants and trees, breaking down matter, providing sustenance - empowering all organisms around them. They actively show us that interconnectivity breeds diversity and resilience. A poorly connected and homogeneous ecosystem would fail immediately in nature. That’s been really helpful as we’ve thought about how to grow as a company. Learning from mycelium about the importance of interconnectedness and diversity has been critical in thinking about how to create an organization that is ready to really fulfill its mission - building way better materials for a way better planet.