If designer and biologist Aaron Nesser’11 has his way, your next pair of tennis shoes won’t last thousands of years in a landfill.
Aaron Nesser’11 is a man on the move. When we spoke on the phone, he was in between several projects and meetings. Nevertheless, each question was met with a thoughtful, enthusiastic answer no less than five minutes long. Nesser’s mind is deep and wide-ranging, which is exactly what you would expect from a man hard at work in the burgeoning world of eco-fashion. As a founding member of the startup AlgiKnit, Nesser and his teammates are striving to combat the excessive materialism of the fashion industry and create products that are stylish, functional, and environmentally friendly.
Although Nesser did not start out as a designer, he was geared toward Beloit from an early age; his grandfather went to both Beloit and Harvard—and said Beloit was the better option. Nesser went on to major in ecology, evolution, and behavioral biology. He also flourished in the school’s famously flexible environment, where, as he put it, “You can be whoever you want to be and live life the way you think it should be lived.”
While at Beloit, Nesser was particularly fond of biology professor John Jungck’s classes, which he took as often as possible. Jungck remembers Nesser as a student whose ambitions were evident from the start. In an interdisciplinary class on Darwin, Nesser ran an analysis on the famous Galapagos finch studies and produced a 3D graph of it. The product was so good that Jungck took it to a national convention, where it drew attention from his colleagues at major research universities. Nesser also used computational geometry to create a model of arabidopsis, a common roadside weed, as part of a tongue cancer research project. “When somebody can do a project like that … I think that tells you how he stands out,” Jungck says. Jungck credits a “deep sense of values that he’s sustained throughout his career” as a key part of Nesser’s success.
The path to design was a roundabout one for Nesser. He spent his first year after college working on a farm in Martha’s Vineyard, where he was introduced to composting, and the idea that everything from plastics to vegetable matter could be repurposed. Shortly after, Nesser and his future wife Anna Ellis’11 moved to New York, where he worked with the mayor’s office and local farmers markets to create a grassroots, curbside food-scrap collection program. Nesser started to notice a common problem: plastics. Even as community composting took off, this ever-prevalent, slow-degrading material continued to be an issue. Education and outreach helped, but “really the problem was in how we produce the things that we buy,” Nesser recalls. It was this concern that spurred his decision to enroll in a graduate program at the Pratt Institute’s School of Design, where he was also increasingly exposed to the hyper-materialistic standards of the fashion industry.
Everything came together in 2016, during the second year of Nesser’s graduate program. He was working at Final Frontier Designs—a firm that creates garments for the aerospace industry—when his friend and coworker Tessa Callaghan told him about the BioDesign Challenge, an annual competition for university students working in the field of biotechnology. It represented the perfect blend of artistic and scientific disciplines, and Nesser leapt at the opportunity, joining a group of Fashion Institute of Technology students to work on the materials track. This option presented an interesting challenge, according to Nesser: “How do you create a new material as designers and biologists?” They knew that the ideal product would have to be sustainable, available in industrial quantities, and non-toxic. “We set this strict parameter space for rapidly renewing materials,” he adds. After exploring many options, the team settled on yarn made out of biopolymers from kelp.
The idea sprang from the unique design backgrounds of the collaborators. Other firms had created eco-friendly textiles, but they tended to fall short when applied to fashion. Based on their combined backgrounds in knitwear, the team wanted to utilize a more flexible, efficient material that could be knit by hand or machine. On June 23, 2016, they presented this early version of “bioyarn” at the challenge’s summit in New York at the Museum of Modern Art.
The team won first prize for its innovation, but it took a little while for the company to come to fruition. After pursuing other projects, the teammates circled back to the idea of bioyarn as a viable design option. After working with scientists at Columbia University and conducting their own research, AlgiKnit officially launched in the spring of 2017. Since then, the accolades have kept coming: in November, the company was one of the winners of National Geographic’s Chasing Genius award, and they recently received pre-seed funding from venture capital firm SOSV to attend RebelBio, a four-month immersive business accelerator in London.
At the company headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., AlgiKnit is hard at work developing its business. As they develop their material, the team is focusing on how to scale up production and start working with major brands in a meaningful way, as well as fundraising and hiring new team members. The day-to-day process is a mixture of innovation, collaboration, and networking. “It’s really all about teamwork and communication,” Nesser said. Aleksandra Gosiewski, another member of the startup, seconded the importance of a close-knit group. “We spend the whole day together,” she said, adding that everybody pitches in on different aspects, from research to networking. Callaghan agrees. “A typical day is highly atypical, with one of the only constant factors being quick turn-around and a busy schedule,” she says, adding that “we try to put a few minutes aside each day to connect as individuals.”
All of this is natural—and necessary—for a startup that is not only taking steps to become a full-fledged company, but also doing so with a completely new product. As Nesser puts it: “When you’re starting at zero, how do you make something that’s commercially viable and fun?” Nevertheless, AlgiKnit’s high-speed trajectory has proven invigorating for its members. “We’re creating something that was just an idea two years ago, and now it’s real, and it works,” he says.
Furthermore, the company is not alone; New York’s startup landscape is increasingly filled with biotech companies. From ocean-friendly materials to pollution-reducing projects, businesses have begun to take on multifaceted environmental reform in a serious way. In addition to providing a built-in network of fellow entrepreneurs, the projects have been inspiring for Nesser.
“I really think that that’s going to be one of the defining challenges of our generation, and it’s really exciting to see brands moving towards this challenge.”
Kelp is something of a super material. It grows extremely fast (10 times quicker than bamboo), naturally filters ocean waste and toxins, and can absorb nutrients from coastal runoff. In addition to all of this, it is already a crucial part of a thriving oceanic ecosystem, which eliminates the need for irrigation, fertilizers, or pesticides. Kelp also plays a distinct role in economics; it is often a major source of income in ocean communities, where local workers are able to harvest and sell vast quantities all year round. It was this versatility that inspired the AlgiKnit team to use the plant as their source material.
One of the biggest challenges the team faced in the production process was how to create a non water-soluble biomaterial. While other organic materials have been used to great effect in design, such as dried kombucha SCOBY, they tend to absorb whatever liquids they come in contact with—including rain and sweat. Subsequently, the team focused on making a sturdy biomaterial that wouldn’t dissolve when it came into contact with moisture.
At the core of their yarn technology is a biopolymer called “alginate,” which is extracted from the cell walls of kelp. It’s combined with other plant-derived biopolymers and mixed to form a sort of gel that goes on to be extruded like spaghetti into a water bath. A green chemical reaction sets the gel, fixing its form as a filament before it’s wound onto spools and turned into yarn.
The resulting material is extremely strong and flexible and easily knit into durable products such as sneakers and bags. It can also absorb a variety of bio-based dyes to allow for safe, customizable coloring.
The manufacturing process for bioyarn is part of what AlgiKnit calls a “circular material economy” in which every part of the production system is self-contained. “When we don’t expect a product to last forever, we should make it from easily biodegradable materials that can break down in a completely ecofriendly way,” says Nesser. When AlgiKnit products wear out, they can be composted, with their components returning to the natural life cycle.