How this Norwich start-up is revolutionising the fashion industry

PUBLISHED: 10:19 15 October 2020 | UPDATED: 10:19 15 October 2020

Biotech firm Colorifix on Norwich Research Park has developed an ingenious new technology to dye fabrics and reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry       Picture: Colorifix

Biotech firm Colorifix on Norwich Research Park has developed an ingenious new technology to dye fabrics and reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry Picture: Colorifix

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Colorifix is a biotechnology company based at Norwich Research Park developing a sustainable method of dying fabrics that is turning the textiles industry green. With designer Stella McCartney and brands like H&M already onboard, the exciting new technology has the potential to radically reduce the environmental impact of the fashion world. Charles Bliss reports.

In 2018, Stella McCartney featured an organic summer dress in her collection that was dyed using the Colorifix process      Picture: PresstigieuxIn 2018, Stella McCartney featured an organic summer dress in her collection that was dyed using the Colorifix process Picture: Presstigieux

The textiles industry is among the most polluting on the planet and the dying process in particular is one of the most environmentally damaging activities. To make the pigments that colour our clothes, petrochemicals are developed in countries with high-end infrastructure such as China and India, which are used to dye fabrics that are shipped all over the world, resulting in a massive carbon footprint. But it is not just the chemicals and the supply chain that are damaging to the environment – the dying process as it currently exists is highly inefficient.

Biotech firm Colorifix on Norwich Research Park has developed an ingenious new technology to dye fabrics that is capable of reducing those environmental impact factors and change the face of the fashion industry as we know it.

“We use synthetic biology to engineer microorganisms so that they can produce, deposit and fix dyes directly onto textiles,” says Colorifix CEO, Orr Yarkoni. 
“This provides a better source of pigments and a more sustainable dying process that reduces water consumption by up to 10-fold and energy by up to 40pc, while completely removing the use of petrochemicals and toxic chemicals.”

After completing his PhD at Newcastle University in molecular and synthetic biology, Orr moved to the University of Cambridge as a research associate. This is where he met Jim Ajioka, co-founder and chief scientific officer at Colorifix. 
“Jim hired me to develop a biosensor for detecting arsenic in water supplies,” Orr explains. “We went to Nepal and developed bacteria that changed colour if the water wasn’t safe to drink.”

After talking to locals, Orr and Jim discovered that the majority of the chemicals contaminating the water came from the textiles industry – specifically, the dying process. This made them wonder: what if you could develop bacteria that changes the colour of the fabric itself? Instead of monitoring the impact of water pollution, perhaps they could avoid polluting the water in the first place? They engineered a microbe that would fix colour to fabric, negating the need for damaging chemicals, while reducing water and energy consumption.

“On average, one kilogram of fabric will consume roughly 1.2kg of chemicals to process, so you are using more chemicals than fabric in the end product,” Orr says. “Dying is done at very high temperatures – ranging from 65°C for delicate materials to over 130°C for polyester and nylon. It can take five to eight hours, depending on materials and colours, and huge amounts of water are used, with 30 litres of water needed to dye one kilogram of fabric.

“Our dying process is faster and it takes place at 37°C – heating to a lower temperature for a shorter period of time and at a lower volume, with liquid ratios as low as four to one compared with the industry standard.”

The Colorifix method takes instruction from nature, locating pigments in biological organisms. “We can extract the DNA code of a butterfly, for example, and find a message within it for a certain pigment. We then put that message – which nature encodes the same way in all living things – into a microorganism and take it through the fermentation process, but instead of producing alcohol when brewing beer, we get it to produce a colour.

Colorifix CEO Orr Yarkoni       Picture: ColorifixColorifix CEO Orr Yarkoni Picture: Colorifix

“We harvest all of the cultures and cells inside the fermenter as well as the water used to grow them in,” Orr explains. “So, we are not wasting any water and we are not adding any metals or binders that make the dying process so environmentally unfriendly.”

The Colorifix method, therefore, is one that applies a genetically modified (GM) process but that makes a non-GM product. There is no biomass from the modified organism on the final material.

“We also don’t need to do as many washes because the amount of pigment left in the water after dying is very low. The industry standard is 3pc, whereas in lab conditions we’ve gotten it as low as 0.003pc. Colorifix is committed to keeping it under 1pc at an industrial scale, all with less washes and less water. It is incredibly efficient.”

Colorifix works across a wide range of materials including natural, synthetic and blended fibres. That means silk, cotton, wool, polyester, nylon and acetate, while the process can also be applied to yarn, fabric or the garment itself.

Though its green credentials are to be commended, Orr’s priority is making the best quality product, ensuring that clothing is washfast and lightfast with the best colour fidelity as well as the right feel. “We don’t compromise on the quality of the product just because of sustainability,” he says.

“Sustainability isn’t just about the environment. A sustainable solution that is only focused on the environment but causes social disruption and is not financially sustainable will have zero impact in the medium and long term. 
It might provoke a trend or raise awareness, but that’s where it will end.

“Our business model is designed so that we can distribute the technology as efficiently as possible to create as much environmental impact in a way that causes minimal social disruption in the most financially sustainable way.

”Instead of producing tonnes of products in Norwich and shipping them all over the world, Colorifix enables centres of production to leverage its technology onsite. “We send a small sample of our microorganisms to the mill or dye house where it is fermented locally. All you need is sugar and water. There is no additional carbon footprint and it stimulates the local economy.

'We can extract the DNA code of a butterfly and find a message within it for a certain pigment,' says CEO Orr Yarkoni      Picture: Colorifix'We can extract the DNA code of a butterfly and find a message within it for a certain pigment,' says CEO Orr Yarkoni Picture: Colorifix

“The challenge of innovating a production chain that is so complex and which clothes more than seven billion humans, is that even a small change in how it works becomes a huge challenge. The attractive thing about Colorifix is that we rely on fermentation which is a proven, scalable technology. There is no need to change the infrastructure.”

With its seamless integration and sustainable methodology, the potential impact of this exciting technology is limitless and is already gaining support from brands such as H&M and fashion designer Stella McCartney. “The brands, the mills, the dye houses, everyone we interreact with in the supply chain is really excited about what we’re doing.”

Orr says that it is the technological excellence and spirit of collaboration at Norwich Research Park that has helped to facilitate the development of Colorifix’s technology and its meteoric rise.

“Because Colorifix is not a typical biotech, pharma or chemicals company, our requirements are very bespoke – so the right kind of space really matters,” he says. “Norwich Research Park has bespoke customisation services that help us innovate and grow and an excellent reputation for synthetic biology. With UEA, Earlham Institute and the John Innes Centre close by, we have a highly talented pool of people we can meet and hopefully hire.”

The only question left to answer: what is Orr’s favourite colour?

“Purple,” he admits, without hesitation. “Purple is quite special in nature because of how it interacts with light. It has very high energy. That is why most purples aren’t very stable in nature and why purple pigments are rare. It’s a beautiful colour.”

For more information please visit www.colorifix.com


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