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The market for next-gen materials is growing

Variety of colorful spools of sewing threads.

One company called Spiber uses precision fermentation to create a silk alternative.

Yulia YasPe

If recent coverage is any indicator, this year’s must-have fashion trends will feature next-gen and bio-based materials. 

Designed to replace animal- or fossil-fuel-based textiles, these innovations are sourced from a range of materials such as mushrooms and coffee grounds, leveraging technologies from precision fermentation to tissue engineering, and finding their way into sneakers, leggings and handbags, to name just a few game-changing applications.

Everyone and their uncle has been announcing new products and partnerships with these materials front and center, including Old Navy, Lululemon, Nike, Patagonia, Crocs, Ralph Lauren — the list goes on and on.      

To help us break down the buzz, Material Innovations Initiative (MII) released a report offering a window into the mercurial landscape of next-gen materials. Here’s a quick glimpse into the state of the market. 

Investment in a growing opportunity  

As the report outlines, there’s "massive potential" and "significant demand" in the next-gen materials industry. Roughly 75 innovators make up the market, and since 2015, they’ve seen more than $1.29 billion in investments, nearly 40 percent of which was raised in 2020 alone. 

If that kind of momentum weren’t impressive enough, here’s another eye-grabbing announcement: Less than a month ago, Spiber — a company using precision fermentation to create a silk alternative, and the top funded next-gen material innovator to date — secured a $312 million investment adding to a grand total of $910.9 million raised.

We need significant investments, partnerships and more material companies and scientists tackling the issues facing the industry.

This ramp up in investment has come in the wake of shifting consumer demands, technological advancements and an ever-increasing landscape of sustainability commitments in the fashion industry. And all this points to more growth on the horizon — according to MII, the market could see a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 80 percent over the next five years.  

With growth comes growing pains 

There’s just one small hiccup the market needs to contend with: "There are currently more interested investors than suitable investment opportunities," the report noted. As Nicole Rawling, CEO of MII, shared with me over email, "The challenge facing the current market is lack of supply."

Of the 40 leading fashion brands that MII met with while researching their report, 38 were actively pursuing next-gen materials. Through internal R&D, partnerships and investments, brands are scrambling to find the solutions that will lure customers with ever-exacting standards while making their sustainable product commitments feasible. With finite innovators on the market, there are only so many solutions to go around — and those solutions are often in the process of achieving effective scale. As the report concluded, "We need significant investments, partnerships and more material companies and scientists tackling the issues facing the industry." 

More than a mini market share?

For my two cents, it’s pretty exciting to see the next-gen market come into its own. I’ve been inspired to cover this industry before, and am hopeful for the innovations and opportunities more investment and growth will afford. But as always, excitement does not automatically equate to meaningful, sustainable change.

If the next-gen materials industry pulls off a remarkable, projected 80 percent CAGR over the next five years, we’ll see a $2.2 billion market by 2026. But, that will represent just a 3 percent market share of the projected $73.6 billion materials market — meanwhile 69 percent will remain with animal-derived materials, and "current-gen," petroleum-based alternatives will make up the remaining 27 percent.

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It’s clear the next-gen materials industry is buzzing and here to stay, but it’s also supremely nascent. As Rawling shared, "There is a huge opportunity for the development of more material companies and increased investment in R&D and scaling solutions. Increased investment is the key to the market’s success."  

As the market matures, I’ll be keeping an eye on three things: the increased investment that Rawling is calling for to bring promising innovations to scale; new inventions and entrants that expand the available solutions landscape; and brand roll-outs that leverage these materials more holistically than the attention-grabbing, one-off product announcements we’re seeing today. 

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