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Five innovations have won a total of US$525,000 as part of Conservation X Labs’ Microfiber Innovation Challenge for their ability to reduce or prevent microfibre pollution.  

Funded by the Flotilla Foundation and The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Conservation X Labs said the winners stood out among submissions spanning 19 countries for their solutions that aim to transform clothing and textiles.  

The Microfiber Innovation Challenge is a global competition calling for upstream innovations that address microfibre pollution by replacing textiles that are sources of plastic microfibres or developing improved textile manufacturing processes to decrease microfibre shedding.   

“These five winners each share a revolutionary potential to protect planetary health and stop the harm from microplastic pollution on ecosystems and human health,” said Dr Alex Dehgan, CEO and co-founder of Washington-based technology company Conservation X Labs (CXL). “These tiny plastics and fibres are found in our drinking water, the food we eat and even the air we breathe. These innovations will play a crucial role in creating sustainable textiles for the future.” 

A panel of seven judges made up of representatives from the clothing industry, materials scientists, conservationists, and investors, selected the winners based on criteria that included feasibility, potential for growth, environmental impact, and novelty of their approach. 

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Winning innovations:  

Mango Materials, based in San Francisco, US, uses an innovative manufacturing technology to turn methane from waste carbon emissions into biodegradable, biopolyester fibres.  

Molly Morse, founder and CEO said, “Innovating with new materials and manufacturing methods takes significant dedication and effort from the full supply chain. We are proud to be part of this challenge that highlights that microfibre pollution is a global travesty in urgent need of novel solutions.” 

Natural Fiber Welding, based in Peoria, Illinois, US, manipulates hydrogen bonds in natural fibres (such as cotton), to determine their form and shape at the molecular level. The patented technology platform delivers exceptional fabric-level performance without the use of synthetic plastics. 

“NFW exists to unlock nature’s potential and make synthetic plastics an artefact of yesterday’s unsustainable material economy,” said Greg Stillman, general manager. “Being selected as a winner of this challenge means NFW is not only fighting the right fight but that we are making meaningful progress on creating a shockingly sustainable future with our all-natural materials.” 

PANGAIA x MTIX Microfiber Mitigation, based in London and West Yorkshire, UK – two materials science companies that are working together on a novel application of MTIX’s Multiplexed Laser Surface Enhancement (MLSE) technology to strengthen the surfaces of fibres within a fabric to prevent microfibre shedding.  The companies said: “Winning the challenge enables our teams to bring the Microfiber Mitigation MLSE treatment to life and continue our vision to build an rarth positive future.”

Tandem Repeat Technologies, based in Pennsylvania, US, uses genetic sequencing and synthetic biology to produce a new fibre, Squitex, that is based on a unique protein structure originally found in the tentacles of squid.   

“We are thrilled to leverage this opportunity to advance our technology, provide sustainable replacements for previous-generation textiles, and inspire continued development of the circular economy,” said Melik Demirel, co-founder and Huck Endowed chair professor at Penn State University.

Werewool, based in New York, US, designs fibres at the DNA level with tailored characteristics such as colour, elasticity, or moisture management.  

“Werewool envisions biodegradable yoga pants and rain jackets, colour without dyes, and performance without plastics,” said Chui-Lian Lee, co-founder and CEO. “Support from the Microfiber Innovation Challenge is a game-changing boost that accelerates our realisation of following nature’s blueprints for a new class of performance textiles.” 

“From a venture perspective, we selected winners who are working to mend existing systems,” explained Victor Friedberg, one of the judges and founder and managing partner at New Epoch Capital. “In order to transform the sector into one in which sustainable materials in apparel is scaled, and to meet the urgency of now, we are going to need this balance of disrupters and menders to revolutionise the field.”  

Winners were awarded prizes from a pool of $525,000. They are also now eligible for additional funding from Conservation X Labs of $25,000 each as they work towards commercialisation goals in 2022. They will also be invited to showcase their innovations at a Solutions Fair at the global sportswear brand Under Armour’s headquarters in Baltimore later this year.  

Kyle Blakely, VP materials and manufacturing innovation at Under Armour said: “The winning innovations are at the forefront of the field using technology to create next-generation fibres for sportswear and apparel that will allow brands like Under Armour to meet our sustainability goals.” 

Conservation X Labs explained around two million tonnes of microfibres are released into the ocean every year, and have been detected at the top of Mount Everest as well as in wildlife living in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean.  

The health impacts are not yet fully understood, however, scientific studies have shown an association between microfibre inhalation and lung damage in humans. Due to the ubiquity of microplastic pollution, it is estimated we each consume a credit card’s worth of plastic every week, pointed out Conservation X Labs.  

Conservation organisation Ocean Wise conducted a study that revealed a number of simple steps consumers can take at home, and the apparel industry can make prior to selling textiles, to reduce the microfibre pollution in the ocean caused by shedding.