Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Biomaterials Specialist Thomas Scheibel

Bayreuth University Professor Thomas Scheibel , a speaker at DLD Campus’ June 21 conference and the co-founder of Munich-based AMSilk, is using spider silk, which is up to five times stronger than steel and extremely elastic, to help corporates bring to market everything from new types of sports shoes and baby apparel to breast implants, cosmetics and drug delivery systems. For example AMSilk collaborated with Adidas to create a prototype of a biodegradable running shoe and with Ocean Pharma to create a new water-based, breathable nail polish.

How did you get started in this new field of biofabrication — building new materials out of genetic material and living tissue ?

T.S. I studied biochemistry and then became interested in biomaterials. In nature everything that is made is multipurpose whereas man-made materials are unidirectional. Spider silk, which has special properties that can be used for a variety of applications, is an example. A spider’s web contains five different materials. It is possible to select them and separate the materials — the frame is a special silk — the first silk spider makes for building a web. You cannot farm spiders like you can silk worms because spiders are cannibalistic. So we had to find a different host system. The challenge was whether we could transfer genetic information from a spider into some other organism. We trans-located spiders’ genes into bacteria that exist also in our gut and thereby reprogrammed these bacteria to produce spider silk proteins.

How do you go from there to producing products?

T.S. Creating the raw material (spider silk proteins) was the first step. Processing that material into fiber was more complicated. It took us more than 10 years to understand how the mechanism works with spiders. In films the super hero Spiderman produces a spider web by shooting out the silk but real spiders pull out the fiber, a process called extrusion. You can make endless fiber that way. The next step was to think about what are the fibers that we can replace with this material? Could we replace plastic material? That was how the discussions started with Adidas. We decided to see if we can use these fibers to make shoes because spider silk is durable, mechanically quite strong and the material is biodegradable. When you no longer want your shoes you can put them in the sink, add water and an enzyme and the next day they are gone.

What are some of the other uses of spider silk?

If you shield silicone breast implants with spider silk (in this case not as a fiber bit as a film coating) you can lower the risk of inflammation and rejection by the body because the immune system does not recognize it as a foreign body. You can also use spider silk as a drug delivery mechanism for toxic cancer medications. The drug is encapsulated within spider silk particles and is only released upon uptake e.g. within cancer cells. Spider silk can also be used in shampoos to gives hair a silky sheen. It is used in skin creams to protect skin from bacteria and is good for people who have very dry skin, such as diabetics. It can also be used as a coating on cloth to protect baby apparel from bacteria so less washing is needed or to lower pilling of furniture upholstery. We are also talking with different manufacturers about making fine dust air filters out of spider silk.

What are some of the future possible applications for biomaterials?

T.S.: The next step is the printing of material together with living matter so we can have e.g. personalized organ transplants. One of the reasons that so many people die from a heart attack is that the heart cannot regenerate tissue because heart muscle cells do not migrate so they cannot enter the damaged area and replace the damaged part. We think there may be a way to use spider silk to regenerate heart muscles by 3D printing them. We made a first milestone towards that application by showing that heart muscle cells grown on a spider silk scaffold start to synchronize their beating rhythm after a few days.

You are the head of the biomaterials department and a vice-president of Bayreuth University but you are also the co-founder of AMSilk, a Munich-based company which has raised around €30 million in venture capital. Who owns the rights to the research and how exactly does the commercialization process work?

T.S. The basis for starting the company was the IP transfer into the GmbH from my former university, the TU Munich, which is also shareholder and co-founder of AMSilk. Nowadays, if new IP on spider silk is generated at my group at the University of Bayreuth, it depends on if and how my university group is involved. In any case, if the spider silk IP is of interest for AMSilk the IP will be offered and if accepted transferred to the company at conditions customary in the market. The commercialization process of spider silk based materials is completely operated by AMSilk.

What advice would you give to big corporates who want to explore the use of biomaterials?

T.S. It is better to have a team than to send a single person because that person might have a preconceived notion of what they want. The best ideas come from brainstorming about new possibilities. The field of bio-inspired materials gives us the possibility to combine things that haven’t been combinable in the past. Nature can not only inspire us, it can provide us with materials to tackle problems that have been so far impossible to solve.

There are several ways to initiate research on bioinspired materials: first is to achieve basic knowledge on the underlying principles. Such research is topically covered within my university group. Even first applications and the development of prototypes can be established at the university, since our team encompasses natural scientists (biologists, chemists, biochemists) as well as engineers; we aim to not only understand molecular building blocks, but to use the knowledge to develop new bio-inspired materials for future applications. In this respect, the chair of biomaterials at the University of Bayreuth acts as a link between industry and scientific research, developing innovative high-performance materials for technical and medical applications. Close-to-market research and product development is handled by AMSilk and partners — therefore, we can cover the entire knowledge chain along the establishment of new bioinspired materials in novel products.

About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.