The Uphill Battle of Innovation in Fashion: The Case of Bolt Threads

Backed by high-profile giants such as Stella McCartney, Kering, adidas, and amassing over $300 million in investments, why has the start-up announced a pause in its operations due to lack of necessary funding for scaling up?

It’s no secret that the fashion industry is one of the most polluting in the world, contributing significantly to global carbon emissions. As the urgency to mitigate the climate crisis intensifies, sustainable innovations are much needed to transform the industry. Yet, the struggle faced by US start-up Bolt Threads in scaling its mycelium-based leather alternative, Mylo, reveals an industry paradox where the much-needed change is challenging to materialize.

Founded in 2009 by CEO Dan Widmaier and CTO David Breslauer, Bolt Threads aimed to disrupt the fashion industry with Mylo, a leather alternative developed from mycelium. Despite high-profile backers such as Stella McCartney, Kering, adidas, and amassing over $300 million in investments, the start-up has recently announced a pause in its operations due to lack of necessary funding for scaling up.

Scaling-up a novel product like Mylo represents the most challenging and expensive stage in a start-up’s life cycle, as Widmaier notes. It involves surmounting technical challenges, meeting regulatory requirements, and ensuring the product can be produced at a volume and price point that the market can bear. Despite the global push towards sustainability and a rising interest in non-animal products, securing funding for this crucial stage has proven difficult for Bolt Threads, reflecting a larger challenge faced by the sector.

The reasons behind this are multi-fold. Firstly, the alternative materials sector has been grappling with fundraising issues over the past 18 months. While sustainability is a hot topic, most investors’ attention seems to have shifted towards sectors perceived as more lucrative or less risky, like Artificial Intelligence. Sustainable materials, despite their crucial role in combating climate change, often face skepticism over their long-term profitability and scalability.

Moreover, the fashion industry itself poses unique challenges. It is deeply rooted in traditional supply chains and manufacturing processes that are not easily or quickly changed. Newcomers proposing radical changes often face resistance from established industry players who may be wary of the high costs and uncertainties associated with adopting new materials and technologies.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom for Bolt Threads and similar start-ups. Widmaier remains hopeful and open to various possibilities, including selling the technology to bring Mylo to the market. His words echo the sentiment of many in the industry: “Humanity needs a more sustainable future or we will cook ourselves on this planet with climate change, and fashion has a huge role in that.”

Indeed, the tale of Bolt Threads highlights the imperative need for a systemic change in the fashion industry and investment community. Stakeholders across the industry need to recognize the importance and potential of sustainable innovations and provide them with the support needed to scale.

It is also worth nothing that Bolt Threads is not alone. Others have fallen. Like fashion-tech start-ups like WISEWEAR, Ringly, VINAYA, and Mezzi, who ventured into areas such as wearable tech and smart accessories. They are stark reminders of the complexities faced by such innovators in the fashion industry.

A few common factors contributed to the failure of these startups, including a lack of consumer readiness to adopt novel technologies in their wardrobe, high prices, and limited functionality of products that didn’t meet consumer expectations.

From a broader perspective, these failures underline the importance of deeply understanding consumer needs and designing products that add real, tangible value to their lives.

For the industry to support the success of fashion-tech start-ups, there’s a need for fostering environments that allow these companies to test, learn, iterate, and scale their innovations. Besides, it’s crucial to encourage collaborations between start-ups, established brands, and technology providers, and to secure investments focused on long-term gains rather than quick returns. By doing so, the industry can ensure that technology and fashion meld in a way that is truly beneficial to consumers and sustainable for the planet.

In the end, for start-ups to succeed in revolutionising the fashion industry, they need more than just a good idea. They need the backing of investors who understand the long-term benefits of these innovations, support from the industry to adopt these new technologies, and a regulatory environment that encourages and facilitates sustainable practices.

The road to sustainable fashion is undoubtedly challenging, but with increased collaboration, understanding, and commitment across all stakeholders, the fashion industry can become a trailblazer in the fight against climate change, rather than a contributor. As the story of Bolt Threads continues to unfold, one can only hope it signals a wake-up call for the industry to reassess its support for sustainable innovations, or risk being left behind in a world increasingly conscious of its environmental footprint.