“There is huge potential to reduce the environmental impact of the textile industry and actively benefit the planet by implementing steady growth,” says Neloufar Taheri, Chief Operations Officer and co-founder. “Our products will have maximum positive impact at scale.”
SaltyCo produces climate-positive textiles from plants grown using regenerative agriculture techniques. In less than two years since the startup was launched, it has established partnerships with brands that want to explore innovative materials helping to sequester carbon, regenerate arable land that was lost due to rising salt content, and reduce the fashion industry’s reliance on freshwater supplies.
With upscaling on the horizon, SaltyCo’s founders are collaborating with Future Fashion Factory researchers to build an evidence base to support the next phase of growth and product development.
The team met on the Masters programme in Innovation Design and Engineering run jointly by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, and between them have backgrounds in engineering, design, chemistry and business strategy. To develop their innovative products they also needed access to specialist expertise in textiles, as well as cutting-edge testing facilities.
“We were all only introduced to textiles during our Masters!” says Antonia Jara Contreras, Chief Product Officer and co-founder. “In some ways it has helped us as we’ve brought a new perspective to the market, and our skillset enabled us to understand our customer requirements from the start.
“But we also need to understand how our product performs and how it compares to existing materials.”
To that end, they collaborated with Professor Stephen Russell, Dr Mark Taylor and Dr Ioana Taylor at the University of Leeds on a project to characterise and benchmark the first prototype of their insulation material: a climate-positive plant-based alternative to synthetic materials or goosedown.
Mark and Ioana’s experience made them a perfect fit for the research: Ioana’s PhD focused on performance clothing, while Mark has worked extensively with brands to optimise their existing insulation products. SaltyCo’s product, however, offered an opportunity to work with something completely new.
“The material is amazing and the concept of using alternative water supplies has so many positives,” says Mark. “SaltyCo has the right ambitions and we can help them understand what is possible with the product.”
The researchers were able to work in the campus lab facilities to complete each phase of testing, but travel and social distancing restrictions prevented the SaltyCo team from visiting in person. That meant regular progress meetings taking place online, while the researchers carefully photographed and documented different testing processes for the team.
Each meeting was an opportunity for the founders to understand more about their product and the technical processes behind it, and for the academic team to understand the commercial requirements from clients.
“This material can’t actually be characterised in the same way as a conventional fibre, so we started by breaking down how to analyse it,” says Ioana. “Then when it came to reporting we made sure it was clear what the results actually meant for non-specialists.”
Throughout the collaboration, the researchers helped the team unpack and interpret each report and highlight areas where the material could be modified and improved. In turn, those insights inspired changes to processes of fibre extraction and manufacturing that have improved the product’s overall performance.
“We tested about five different variations of the product based on the research, which enabled us to optimise and adapt our process,” Neloufar says. “It was exactly the right expertise at the right time.”
Beyond their technical knowledge, Mark and Ioana’s years of experience working with and in the textiles industry was a valuable resource for the team. They were able to share their wider commercial knowledge, offering insights into how the sector is evolving and how competitors assess and make claims for their products.
All of this, SaltyCo’s founders say, has been integral to understanding the market in which they operate and where their climate-positive insulation material fits in the wider industry.
“This project ultimately helped us understand where our product is benchmarked and what these values mean for our customers,” Nelly explains. “It’s also given us a good sense of what we need to do next to get it market-ready and even a direction for the post-processing stage.”
The learning and relationships gained through the project will feed into SaltyCo’s next major undertaking – an Innovate UK-funded project to pilot the startup’s entire supply chain, with continued academic support from Mark and Ioana.
“The data we have now gives us a quality standard which trickles through the entire supply chain, from the farms where the raw materials are grown to how we market the end product. This allows us to upscale with confidence,” Neloufar adds.
Working with researchers has given the SaltyCo founders access to specialised expertise and facilities, but the support and enthusiasm of the academic team has also helped renew their confidence in their goals.
“Others had been hesitant but the Future Fashion Factory team was excited about the product from day one,” Antonia says. “They’ve been in the industry so long and really know what they’re talking about. Their seal of approval gave us so much confidence to keep going.”