A Q&A with Biomaterials Innovator Aaron Nesser

“The best moments of collaboration happen between teams and across disciplines.”

A Q&A with Biomaterials Innovator Aaron Nesser

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Aaron Nesser, the biomaterials innovator behind the seaweed-derived yarn, AlgiKnit, which started as a student project.

Aaron is a scientist and a designer, a powerful and unusual combination of skills that places him at a fascinating intersection in the design world and makes him the ideal person to ask about biomaterials. He is the CTO and co-founder of AlgiKnit, the flagship product of which is a compostable yarn made from kelp, one of the most regenerative organisms on earth. He is dedicated to sustainable efforts that promote a circular economy. We asked him about what he’s working on, what’s exciting to him about biomaterials, and his hopes for the future of the biomaterials industry.

Biomaterials expert Aaron Nesser poses for a headshot
Aaron Nesser is a biomaterials expert and the founder of AlgiKnit. Photo courtesy of Aaron Nesser.

Q: What are you working on that’s interesting to you at the moment? 

A: We’ve recently opened up a new office in North Carolina and it’s spawned all sorts of interesting projects. One of those projects has been sourcing furniture. We have a big space — over 14,000 ft 2— and the idea of outfitting it with all new furniture seemed a bit outlandish for a company like ours that is built around sustainability. Picking up a desk or a chair at a thrift store is one thing, but finding 10, 20, 30 of them, and making them fit into a cohesive style is a whole different thing. Apart from saving money and avoiding climate emissions, working with all of this second hand furniture has pushed us to come up with some really creative solutions to fit things together. It’s been a blast putting the puzzle together.

Q: How did your company start, and what were some of your early challenges in its development? 

A: In 2016, my co-founders, Aleksandra Gosiewski, Tessa Callaghan, and I started working together as part of the first Biodesign Challenge. It’s a competition where students across disciplines work together to create innovative applications of biotechnology. We all shared an interest in materials and in fashion’s impact on the environment, and wanted to do something about it. We won the challenge with a textile material derived from a seaweed biopolymer, and that’s how the idea behind AlgiKnit was born. 

One of the challenges we’ve faced comes from our sustainability-first mindset. Reacting to the 20th century mentality that valued performance above any other aspect, we started by defining sustainability parameters. We then experimented with materials that fit into that space even though they didn’t have the full performance we needed. Our challenge has been to use sustainable chemistry and process to hit performance metrics that a 20th-century chemist wouldn’t have thought possible without using synthetic additives. Our decisions over the last 5 years have reaffirmed our sustainability-first approach over and over again, and that has put the company in this amazing position where it would actually be much harder to compromise on sustainability than to maintain it. 

Q: Could you tell us about the material properties of your product and what makes it special?

A: Our product is a seaweed-derived yarn made from biopolymers of kelp. We leverage green chemistry to create a patented, drop-in solution that can be utilized in existing fiber, yarn and textile production infrastructure. Our process is grounded in the use and creation of clean, non-toxic inputs and outputs. This minimizes our footprint while maximizing the impact of our technology. Kelp is amazing. It’s a renewable and regenerative resource that fights ocean acidification and captures carbon. It has a look and feel that is similar to other natural fibers but our yarn differs from other biomaterials in that the majority of it is bio-based. It can also be used in conventional textile processing and production techniques, which is unusual for many biomaterials. 

Q: What do you see as the most compelling or promising applications of this innovative material? 

A: For sustainable biomaterials as a whole, my dream is to see them drop-in to any of today’s best products without fuss. We’ve built so many effective systems to make and sell products that we use everyday—from factories to supply chains to iconic designs. The most compelling aspect of our material, and materials like it, is that we won’t need to build an all-new system to realize the advantages of these sustainable biomaterials. It means that we can get to a sustainable future faster, without the time and emissions required to build completely new infrastructures and products. 

Q: Could you share some examples of biomaterial applications that are exciting to you?

A: I’m always interested in cool applications for seaweed and seaweed based-materials—one that comes to mind is a new company called Vyld. Founded by Ines Schiller, they are a start-up making the first tampon (or “kelpon”) from seaweed. Vyld is a great example of how to replace legacy materials with sustainable biomaterials and in the process make a product better, safer and more sustainable than what is available today. 

Another is Kelp Blue. They’ve designed an off-shore kelp farming system that they’re now in the process of building off the coast of Namibia. While kelp has an awesome ability to draw down carbon year after year, the kelp forest ecosystem is not naturally expanding. Kelp Blue plans to build infrastructure to create thousands of hectares of new kelp forest, that would draw down over a million tons of CO2 annually and produce raw materials to go towards producing sustainable products.

Q: Could you talk about what collaboration looks like in your work? 

A: The best moments of collaboration happen between teams and across disciplines. We all go so deep into our areas of expertise that it’s easy to come into collaborative work speaking somewhat different languages. My favorite parts of collaboration happen when a group reaches a new understanding or a process, a concept, even something as simple as a word that we all had understood to be something different. Creating the space to successfully navigate these interfaces of common understanding has been crucial to our success. Those moments of realization where everyone syncs up are deeply satisfying and fun.

Q: If I were a creator looking to use your material for a project, how would I go about it? 

A: We are currently exploring the use of our material in fashion (primarily in accessories and garments), home furnishings, and interiors – really, wherever textiles have an application. We want to work with designers, brands and partners who share our desire to transform the textile industry’s wasteful and harmful systems of production.

Q: I saw that you recently closed millions in Series A funding, what does that mean for you going forward? 

A: Our Series A was a huge accomplishment for us in terms of allowing us to scale the production of our material. In July, we opened our new headquarters in the Research Triangle Area of North Carolina. We are working to scale production at this new facility, first to support brand-pilots and then to grow to commercial-scale production. It’s a big step forward as we work to make our material more accessible. We are also actively hiring to build out our team in North Carolina, specifically around chemical engineering, textile science, and business development.

Q: What do you see in the future of the biomaterials industry? 

Biomaterials as a category will continue to grow—in our changing-climate world, where carbon will have an increasingly important role in decision making, biomaterials are the only class of materials that will be able to fill the gaps and continue growing. One challenge that we’ll have to sort out as an industry is how to ensure alignment between sustainability and biomaterials. Though the word has a feeling of newness and progress, some of the biggest biomaterials today are still part of the highly polluting ecosystem of legacy materials due to the way they are grown and produced. Part of a successful biomaterial future will be to elevate climate-positive biomaterials, and to shed any climate-harming material regardless if it is synthetic or bio-based.

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