Materially Better
Materially Better
Melik Demirel: Squid-inspired Protein Pioneer on Self-healing and Programmable Materials

Melik Demirel: Squid-inspired Protein Pioneer on Self-healing and Programmable Materials

Melik Demirel is the co-founder of Tandem Repeat, a startup working on squid-inspired bioengineered materials and he's a professor in Biomimetic Materials, as well as the director of the Center for Research on Advanced Fiber Technologies at Penn State University.

We talk about

  • how he and his team were the first to discover the rapid self-healing properties of squid-inspired protein

  • how Tandem Repeat's protein and fibers are made

  • their go-to-market strategy and their first product

  • approach to scaling Tandem Repeat

  • his research on performance composite biomaterials

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In launching this podcast, there are two other episodes available today. Max Mundt from Insempra Bio on a revolution in matter and Insempra’s unusual approach to commercializing biomaterials, and Antonio Castro Neto, the “godfather of graphene” on graphene-kevlar helmets and more.

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(03:23) Demonstrating unique properties of squid-inspired protein

(13:35) How Tandem Repeat's protein and fibers are made

(25:24) Go-to-market strategy and their first product

(29:13) Approach to scaling Tandem Repeat

(38:35) Performance composite biomaterials


Tsung: This is a conversation with Melik Demirel. Melik is the co-founder of Tandem Repeat, a startup working on squid inspired bioengineered materials, and he's also the Huck Endowed Chaired Professor in Biomimetic Materials, as well as the director of the Center for Research on Advanced Fiber Technologies at Penn State University.

Melik has three decades of experience in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and material science. He was previously a Humboldt fellow at the Max Plank Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, a visiting scholar at Wyss Institute and at Los National Lab In this conversation we cover his research into the unique properties of squid-inspired proteins and composite materials, the origin story for Tandem Repeat, how they make the proteins and fibers, and their approach to scaling up.

I'm Tsung Xu and this is Materially Better. This podcast is a series of conversations about new performance materials and their applications I believe that new materials will play a big role in unlocking innovation and solving pressing problems and this podcast helps surface insights and learnings from the frontier And now here's Melik Demirel.

Can you give the one liner for what Tandem Repeat is?

Melik: Tandem Repeat is a sustainable company that's generating materials in bioengineered domain.

Tsung: What led to your interest generally in nanomaterials, in biomanufacturing materials and what your current research areas are.

Melik: Yeah, as you know, I'm a professor at Penn State University and I've been working in general in the materials domain the last 30 years and the last 10 years I've focused on making materials by engineered materials, specifically proteins. Around 2018, one of my co-founder came to me and, she was working on textile.

They have, family of businesses in textile. And they said, Hey, we have interest in textile. Will this, material be useful for that? And I said, Hey, I don't know. We can give it a try and we can work on. it And, so then we started in 2018. And we got couple of grants, VC money and so on.

So things accelerated. Now we have 10 people in the company.

Tsung: I just wanted to step back a little bit there. You mentioned you've been working on Bioengineered materials for about 10 years. What got you initially interested in bioengineered materials?

Melik: Almost like 30 years ago I started working on, proteins theoretically. and we developed a model, basically on a theoretical model, simulating, the dynamics of proteins. So this is way back in 1990s. So then I realized that, proteins are going to be important, but I lacked the information of, materials, in general.

I decided to do a PhD on materials and I started at Carnegie Mellon, and then worked, at, NIH and, Los Alamos National Labs. And luckily I got offered a job at, Penn State way back in 2003. That summer I also offer the, a position at Max Plan, in Germany, Max Plank Institute for biophysical chemistry, where I did actually learn a lot of molecular biology.

Demonstrating unique properties of squid-inspired protein

Melik: I start working on, different, types of, materials, biomaterials, bioengineered materials, different aspects and so on. And, around 2010, I started to look into, new materials that we can use, the protein knowledge that I gathered for a long time. So it was time to combine, my material science background and, protein background.

And we start initially looking at silk elastin and so on. there were, several studies that has been done here. And then I looked into an alternative to silk, because the silk, as you may know, shrinks when you, when you wash it, right? So that's why the, silk clothes, they recommend that you don't wash your silk, made materials.

We were looking at some materials that evolved in oceans that may have similar structure to silk. And then I stopped reading the literature. I found the oldest literature in 1910, a book that was published in Woods Hall, National Laboratory, so it was talking about this very unique protein at the suction cups of, of squid, almost nothing between 1910 and 1970s, where the zoologists in England continued to work on the material and try to identify some of its properties.

Then there's a group at Santa Barbara, which picked it up and look at the properties of this material and so forth. And then we, we actually collaborated later on with them for a while.

In my group I decided that I should start an independent research on this. And luckily we got some funding and we went around the world collected six different squid species bringing to Penn State. Did the, genomic analysis, transcriptome analysis and so forth. Around 2014, we now have a database of different, squid proteins and we were looking into recombinant expression of these proteins. What we find out is basically, there is very unique aspect of this sequences. there are very similar to other, repetitive proteins in structural domains in the sense that they were made of like repeat units.

They were tandem repeats. What is interesting about them is the sequence variations are significantly much larger than any other protein that we looked into. So then we started, working towards, engineering of these proteins in bacteria. luckily I met, a great scientist, Benjamin Ellen at the time, and he moved from Caltech to, to Penn State.

And, we started collaborating with him. and, then the, recombinant expression later on, I got a very talented postdoc, which was extremely successful on increasing the yield of this proteins. He was a fermentation engineer. And, slowly we started to increase from microgram quantities to milligram quantities and the gram quantities and so forth.

And by the time 2018, we were ready to push this technology to the commercial domain. So, over the last decade, I think we, we did start from almost nothing about this protein, learning about it to a level where, I would probably say that we made some of the interesting fibers, that, are made from this protein and, and, its derivatives.

Tsung: Fantastic. I just wanna make a comment about the micrograms, milligrams, grams, because I heard similar things about spider silk protein, with spider and them going from milligrams to obviously, kilos and, and, and, and tons and and beyond.

So it is fascinating how that process does take quite a bit of time and, and folks kind of probably don't appreciate that as much. I would love to look at the fiber as well, shortly, but can you talk more about the sort of the, the novel properties of the protein, versus materials generally? And perhaps also talk about it and how different it is versus perhaps other, bioengineered materials out there today.

Melik: Yeah, I was actually lucky to have very good students in the last, 10 years. So one of them was, abed on, pen, France, who's now an assistant professor in Michigan, Univers of Michigan. He, basically he was very interested on finding applications while the, the group, the rest of the group was working on synthetic biology aspect of how we can, produce this material, how we can increase the fermentation, earlier work of genomics and bioinformatics and so forth.

So, while Abdon was very interested in pushing some of this thing to the application domain and, what we discovered, is basically the self-healing property of the, of the protein. First, it was quite interesting because, number one, it wasn't reported in the literature, that squid proteins can be self healed.

We were the first one in 2015 write the paper about this thing. And then later on we published a couple of papers, and worked towards understanding it. Basically the material by itself is, is a, technically, you can call it a thermoplastic elastomer with a, hydrogen bonded network. which means that in simple terms, it means like, almost like you have a crystalline rubber, which is an interesting perspective, but at the same time, it has hydrogen bonds. it's like you have a chewing gum, but it's made of some crystalline materials, and, basically it can, it has this unique hydrogen bunch it, in, in, in the whole structure.

So, but anyway, the bottom line is, we discovered that the material can self heal and, still, I'm also trying to understand how in, squid in nature, basically helps to repair its, its ring teeth because, every time, squid attacks to a, a fish, these, ring teeth are, are damaged. So it could be a, a very good evolutionary advantage of it.

The other property that we discovered through collaborations with, a colleague from University of Virginia. I called them, and they were doing terminal measurements. And I said, look, can you guys look into thermal properties of these things?

And what we discovered is the material can switch it to terminal conductivity. Conductivity in polymers or proteins is very low. there are good insulating materials. but what we discovered is when you add water, to the material, the conductivity of the protein can jump significantly, at least what we discovered is five times. And that was an interesting discovery because it has immense application in, textile and other cooling devices and so on, because the, material can switch its external conductivity. And, looking at back to this, all this research, what we have, been interested to dis in, in this discoveries are basically, properties are as significant as the, as structure and the sequences of, of this, specific material.

So, overall it's surprising us all the time. We, we, meanwhile we have seen other. types of behavior, which I'm not going to get into details, but there is, like, these are the two very interesting, properties because in the self-healing domain, it's the fastest and strongest self-healing material that has been recorded up to now.

And I, I say up to now because it's signs as like people always find another material. so, as max Web said in 1918, right? So, science by its very nature, designed to be surpassed, right? So, and the thermal behavior is also quite interesting because at room temperature and hundred celcius domain.

So it is the, the highest, thermal switchable material that has been recorded up to now. So I'm sure we will find other properties, and I'm sure that there are other proteins out there which, needs our attention. so therefore, right now we are actually working towards, developing new tools and developing new strategies to understand, all these unique characteristics.

Tsung: Yeah. Amazing. There's definitely other properties you could talk to, I'm sure, but those two are almost unique and, and certainly very, exceptional. Just for folks, context, the, the self healing properties are at relatively low temperature, you only need to apply a bit of heat, is that correct?

Melik: Correct. So, the native one has transition, temperature, glass, transition temperature around, 34. but the, recombinant ones that we developed, can actually, do these transitions around room temperature. So, and I'm sure if the engineer, the more we should, we should be able to find even, colder temperatures, that, hasn't been studied yet.

Tsung: Fascinating. With the, thermal conductivity, I just wanted to ask, what's the mechanism there for the switch? How does that work?

Melik: That's quite interesting. We initially thought that there was some crystallinity effect, but later on, with an, an ? Scientist, an ? Chemist, from Germany, what we have discovered is, the molecular architecture of these materials play a key role, for this terminal conductivity.

so there the, the interface between this amorphous to crystaline domain transitions, there is, the interface plays a very interesting key role for enhanced thermal conductivity when, the material is, vetted

Tsung: Is that something you can actually easily integrate into applications or is that something that still needs more research before you can actually start to utilize some of those, those thermal switching properties?

Melik: Right. So we do, think that we, we can achieve these things in, in the, fiber properties. Like we, we will get into this in a second, but second The fibers that we made, and, and, as I said, this took 10 years to make it. But now we are, basically, trying to scale this up and, we believe that some of these properties will exist in, in the, in the, fiber form as well.

How Tandem Repeat's protein and fibers are made

Tsung: That's fascinating. let's dive a bit more into how, both the protein and how the fiber is made. I mean, maybe if you could start with the protein first and then we can talk a bit more about the fiber.

Melik: Yeah. The protein is made by biomanufacturing. Basically we use bacterial fermentation. So we do have the, the sequences and encoded into the bacteria, and then we grow them, in, fermentation media. And then we use a, a unique, purification approach. And then we have the dry powder. so we took that dry powder and use a commercial technique called spinning.

There are different spinning techniques. There's mouth spinning, there's dry spinning, dry wet spinning. There is wet spinning and so forth. we use this technique, to make the fibers. The fibers can be used in various areas, optical, fibers. It could be used for textiles, it could be used for nonwovens and so forth. So it's, technique that has been developed long time ago. It's now generally known as a lyo cell process, commercially. so it's a standard technique. It can be scaled up very easily. so it is a very efficient method of making, long fibers, that could be used in various application in, in textiles, nonwovens optics, and other, other areas.

Tsung: You can integrate into those existing manufacturing processes to some extent. So I want to just talk a little bit more about the fiber. So the fiber is Squitex...

Melik: When we started the, the company, one key question was like, what are you going to call this?

And it's always good to have, a name like "Intel inside" of a computer chip. very similar to Goretex idea, right? So, if you ask any, anybody, what they want to mimic. so like they want to, work on a product that has the, the, the name like Goretex that therefore it's a, it's an interesting name because, it has, various applications from, installations to fashion to, other, coated materials and so forth.

So, we were looking for a name and Squitex come up, with the trade name, of, of this thing. And in fact, as an academic, I keep using it in my, articles as well. it's, it's a good name to, represent the materials that's being made.

And it also covers a large set of, composites as well. So basically, as we, we make these materials from different mixtures and so forth as well to lower the price. and, therefore it's a, it's a generic name, that's, is, easy for the public to, to capture.

Tsung: Goretex comes up a lot in conversations around next generation materials and what success looks like for, manufacturers. talking about the Squitex composites and, mentioned mixtures, but I guess blends as well. can you talk a bit about the blends and, and, what you actually mix it with to actually bring down the cost of it.

Melik: The idea is when we make this thing 10 years, and then it took a lot of work. So then we started to ask the question, Okay, it cannot take another 10 years to scale this up. So then like in three months of time, we went from almost, five grams to 50 grams, 10 x increase, of the material.

So the, the catch point is, okay, the world production of fibers is 110 million tons. 110 million tons is a huge number. So, out of which, you can think about 55% is polyester. 25% is cotton, and is 7- 8% is cellose. natural fibers like less than 5% and so on. So, looking at 50 grams and the next, big goal of getting into million tons is a huge gap.

And we start to think how we can close this gap. I mean, is there any way that we could, push this technologies to, to the next level by mixing with other polymers, other, natural polymers, especially because we would like to go after natural material because we have a big mission of making these materials sustainable.

Sustainability is not important for only the manufacturing industry, but also for ecological purposes, for social responsibility and so forth are the key, aspect for it. So we realize that we can, easily mix with other available, materials such as like, polysaccharides and, sugar based materials, like basically chitin, cellulose and other materials.

So, so we have been, we have been trying a lot, We have been trying to mix these things with different, polymers, different, different types of also nature, nature, proteins, right? So proteins that are available in large quantities so that you can lower the cost. So the key issue is how to maintain all these unique properties while trying to mix them, is the challenge.

And that's exactly what we are trying to solve here.

Tsung: How is Squitex better than other fibers today and recognizing that some of those properties, in native squids or even in the squid protein, that you make using biomanufacturing, maybe somewhat different when it's transferred to the fiber.

so how is Squitex better than other fibers today? And the other question being, did you think about other types of fibers before you started commercializing or, even researching, squid, and perhaps animal, inspired fibers.

Melik: My perspective is entering to this huge market, of 110 million ton market. So, which corresponds actually. When it converts into clothes and other items like shoes, apparels, and so forth, it's, it's almost like a $3 trillion market. So, which is, which is very unique because the, there's only a handful of, markets that are bigger than trillion with T right?

These are, for example, oil and gas, electronics, space, these are some of the examples, that are, huge markets annually. Like three trillion is a huge market. The markets are very scattered because, there's like lots of brands, and, different manufacturers at, at textile level and raw materials and so forth.

When you look at, the example, of, making a new fiber, as I mentioned, polyester, cotton and cellulose are the three big players, right? So cellulose is known as like the viscose lyocell process and so forth. That's the, the smallest in the, in this all three, right? So 55% polyester, 25% cut, and, much smaller set of, six -7% of cellose materials.

So that's how you make the fibers. So, naturally the cotton has this, this fibers in any case. So the entering to the market with a new fiber is very, very difficult. To give you an idea, PLA started in 1990s. basically, the argument was PLA is by a compostable. Let's make it, and let's push to the market.

And after like 30 years, the, the amount of PLA in the market is less than 1%. And even worse is basically the PLA, which was claimed to be by compostable turned out to be not that biocom compostable. And every single PLA that has been produced up to now is still in the trash, right? So it didn't go away.

So our goal when I started this thing, I had two ambitions. Number one is I want to make sure, that the material that we are going to make is going to help what is out there already manufacturing accepted, right? So I need to make sure that I can, for example, from the polyester perspective, I can minimize the microfiber shedding microfibers are tiny fibers that's coming out of the polyester, which basically polluted the oceans and kill planktons and so forth. It's everywhere now. It's in your drinking water, It's in your food and so forth.

And at the same time, I didn't want to penetrate as a new fiber, right? So it's a new fiber is a very difficult idea. So we were looking for how can we have cellulose, for example, How can we have polyester or cotton or, can we replace polyester to if we have gained the, the right properties?

That was the technology aspect of, of the picture. And I also have the, more deeper, question in, socioeconomic aspect of it, right? So if you look at this, all this big industry of textiles, it is the second biggest polluter of the world, the textile industry.

So, and then the production also creates, a lot of pollution, but also including greenhouse gases and so forth. It also, the end users of these materials are also, detrimental to the nature, right? So, it's very destructive in the sense of, micro fiber pollution, plastic pollution, and so forth.

And the, and the socioeconomic perspective of the whole pollution is related to the different economic groups. It turns out that the economically disadvantaged people are exposed to more pollution than, the rest of the society, right?

So, so then there was actually also a key aspect of, is this, is that possible to democratize an industry which has been polluting the environment? So, on one hand you want to make a fiber, So that means that this fiber has to have very strong properties. On the other hand, you want to make sure that this fiber is economically viable so that it does not only generate a material that's for the fashion industry, but also for the masses, right?

So these two questions are very difficult to merge. but that's a noble goal. that's a interesting, starting point. and I think, for the next 10 years we are going to work on these two major problems. Basically bringing new properties in this fibers and at the same time try to democratize, the fashion industry. Quite interestingly, in the solar domain and in the communication domain, like, it has been significantly achieved, right? So if you think about like your, accessing to the energy through solar power, it is now, distributed to the masses and same as the electronics, right? The communication technology or cell phones, there are different versions of them.

There are cheaper versions and expansive versions and so on, but it's at least distributed to the society, right? So for the good of the society, right? So of course there is always, every technology, which is it's own circle could be neutral, but when you take it out and, and start to analyze the details, it could be asymmetric, right?

It could create asymmetric problems in the society. So, so that's, that's two points that I would like to bring it up when I, move, the next decade of this technology.

Tsung: Sustainability is, something that, because of the success of synthetic polymers and we've had to grapple with some of those environmental, ecological, and even health consequences of things like microplastics and, and pollution and end of life.

I'm looking forward to a world where, I think biomanufactured materials and, and other materials can actually be default sustainable and, be much more, easy to work with and deal with at end of life while also having these performance properties, which will help pull forward the demand.

The point on solar, and communications tech is well taken. some of the listeners will know that I've, I've written about solar and energy transitions before. Folks have been talking about a period of stagnation for 50 years.

But we're really now, I think, moving into an era where we do have multiple non-linear technologies like solar, which is a little bit more mature like lithium-ion batteries on the energy side. We have synthetic biology underpinning all these different industries, including biomaterials. And ai of course.

Go-to-market strategy and their first product

Tsung: It's an exciting time I think in terms of innovation generally. I wanted to get into, talking about go to market. What is the first product that you are aiming to go to market with? Whether that be for the, the protein or the fiber.

Melik: Yeah. So we, we think that, we can make impact on thermal, like, athletic, clothes so thermal is one interesting application. We can make an impact on kids, where wear and tear is high. So that's where the self healing behaviors can play a key role, in fact, in shoe industry too.

So it could, it could very well impact the next generation of shoes and so forth. And also, I believe that there is also unique, niche applications in like, leather coatings in, making the current existing leather to be much more sustainable because, they're, they're using some of the, plastic materials which they shouldn't.

And there's also aspect of, can you make a business suit that will not wrinkle, but at the same time, will thermally will keep you cool, Right? So, and then I also think that we can make a big impact on the, dying business as well.

So we could, we have some unique, approaches where we can actually recolor, the fibers, the clothes in a different manner. I will not get into this detail because we are developing some of this new technologies in parallel, but I believe there's hundreds of different examples that this, this new technologies will play, play a key role.

One thing that I want to refrain is not to create another fiber. I want to have the existing fiber markets, textile markets, nonwoven markets, clothing markets, and coatings These are the things that I want to do.

Tsung: Okay. Got it. Yeah, coatings is interesting. If we could, dive into that a little bit in terms of the other coatings you said, currently there's some plastics and polymers that are used there. Is this, is this an example of where you could actually go in with, lower volume, but a potentially higher value market where presumably these coatings just because of the, the low volume that probably are gonna be selling for a higher price than, than potentially fibers.

Melik: So the economies of scale is the biggest challenge in the markets, right? So if you're producing something at very large quantities, then you will, you can reduce the price, right? So for a starting company, which can only produce in the kilogram scales, right? So, the, the challenge is what's the next your application so that you can start to produce, and push it to the market.

So, yes, the examples of coatings whether in the fiber market, whether in the, leather markets are, some of the low hanging fruits for us.

Tsung: Yep. Makes a ton of sense. I want to come back to scale up as well, but wanted to focus a bit more on, on go to market. so do you think of a, a specific type of customer that's actually best suited to partner with you at the moment and what is that value proposition for those customers that you're talking.

Melik: Yeah, the sustainability, right? So it is the, basically how can you start, still keep, cost par at the same time provide the sustainable materials that high, high performance. So that's why we always go after all natural, which correspond to sustainable high performance, which relates to the oldest properties that we discussed.

It's, bioengineer materials and, and bioengineering, biomanufacturing is key here because it can help the manufacturing industrial significantly by producing it locally, right? The motto that we have is, let's produce all natural, high performance, bioengineered materials.

Approach to scaling Tandem Repeat

Tsung: Can you talk about, cost and economies of scale, how those costs might fall as you scale into larger markets? And also, high level plans for scale up.

Melik: For a company, in the manufacturing domain, a key challenge is scale up. Right? So, and how does that relate to the sales and, moving into market? The current problems of the scale up is basically do you have the right type of organisms that can use a feedstock that's cheap enough.

And then further, down stream, can you make it, a low cost purification, right? So then you have a raw material, and then you can shape that raw material into fibers, films, coatings, whatever you want to do, right? So things like the ones that I showed you. But there are other forms of, of things, you can make.

For that reason, it's, it's always good to think about how the protein industry works previously in making, let's say enzymes, right? So a key, aspect of this thing is the, the classic detergent enzymes, right? So, the industry, made it to a couple of, dollar per kilogram range. Coming from tens of thousands of dollars in the 30 year range.

So how did it go? So basically they started in, in similar academic labs, it moved to facilities, and then the pilot, and then it, it went to the whole production. While it's doing that, compared to semiconductor industry, for example, where this in the semiconductor industry, now you're using exactly the same infrastructure or similar infrastructure to carve out your, silicon material, right?

You have a very expensive infrastructure that you carve out the materials and hence the Moore's Law, the scaling is up to a point, determines the speed or the frequency of the, of the machine. And up to like 2010 and so on, it was exponentially, lowering the cost and increasing the speed. But then it's stagnated, right? So it's stagnated because, now you hit the limits of quantum and limits of production and so forth.

In the bio industry, it's very interesting because now we are using biological materials compared to lithography, you are using biological materials. That leads us, interesting, aspect because we can change the whole micro factory.

If you think about the bacteria as the micro factory, we can go from bacteria, to yeast like Pichia and to let's say Aspergillus. Every time you have an increased, biomass, the process is very difficult to attain in the sense that, the, every time you jump an organism, you are losing a couple of years.

But at the same time, you are gaining a lot of, new expertise in making them. In fact, the enzyme example for the detergents that I show you, they end up in the plants, right? The cheapest production was in plant production, right? So I mean, all of a sudden you went from microorganisms to very complex plants and so forth.

To answer the question of scale, of course, we wanted to scale up, and the interesting point is there's big demands for this infrastructure for startup companies that are, pre-seed, seed and series A. But when you go to larger scale production, there's like a handful of companies in the world that are running the shop, right?

So, and some of them are empty, right? So because when you go to a hundred thousand liter scales, a hundred meter cubed scales, they keep changing the production of, of the materials because there is so much empty space, right? So, because at that level, if the material is scaled up to a production, now the key issue then becomes, logistic selling it and producing it, larger titers and so forth.

So with all this in mind, what we are planning to do is we would like to go to the next level. And luckily, as I said, we got some government funding recently, and some also venture capital money. So to tandem repeat and, with the team. I'm sure they will be able to achieve the next level of scaleup.

Tsung: Yeah, that's great to hear. And I wanted to double click on one thing you said there, which was fascinating that I hadn't realized was that commercial enzyme production at low cost is now done using plants instead of microbes. or at least, for some enzymes.

I'm curious if you could see a world where plants could one day produce a squid-inspired protein, or is that just too far of a stretch?

Melik: First, let's make the differentiation because the enzymes, you can secrete them. These, proteins that we are talking about, they're not water soluble. So in fact, it's good for the materials being not water soluble in the sense that you can wash it, you can use it in various applications.

The engineering of plants are not easy, right? Plant scientists, they will give you at least five years at best, five years a decade is, is a typical number, right? So, and, so of course there are still lots of enzymes being biomanufactured with microbes and so on.

And, and remember there is going to be more microbes that are being engineered in the next, decade or so. But multicellular organism has certain advantages, right? Such as, the energy efficiency, if you look at plant or a human cell, compared to bacteria, the bacteria is 1000 times less efficient per mass than mamallian or plant cells. 1000 times.

So this efficiency is quite interesting because, the lifetime of the bacteria is 20 minutes, the lifetime of human and, and plants are in the order of, century and, and, and, and so on. You need that kind of efficiency to, to keep things moving forward, right?

The other thing is there are, in your body you have like protection cells, you have cells that can do different organs and so on. And, and on the side level, you don't have this kind of defense mechanism. The biggest problem, for example, for a fermentation industry is the phage contamination and so on.

And, so putting all this together, there is a lot of, academic research that has to be done, how we can, learn from multicellular organisms, to produce these materials, right? The challenge here is basically, if you want to make this thing very efficient, you have to increase some of the, fermentation parameters.

Everything boils down to, basically to the limit of the molecular kinetics, right? There is a rate for transcription, there's a rate for translation. And you cannot change that. So, there's a rate for division and so forth, but you can play with some of the parameters to make it better.

And so these are key parameters to design next generation of materials.

Tsung: I know you've talked a bit about the programmability and sort of the tunability of biomaterials and using either microbial fermentation or perhaps in the future cell free, systems to actually make these materials. There's just that level of programmability and tunability that we've never had before.

Right. In, in any any class of materials. Slightly different gear. If tandem repeat is wildly successful, what have you achieved and what do products that you offer look like in 10 or even 20 years?

Melik: Yeah. I think from my perspective, of course, this has to be decided by the, the executive team of tandem repeat and its employees. But from my perspective, the vision should be of course, creating a new brand, creating a, a material. Of course, everybody wants to have a similar model like the Goretex model, which is successful, up to a point where the flourine based materials are now seen as dangerous.

So maybe, that's going to, be the end of the, this type of products. But on the other hand, if you're generating a new, model of, companies, you should be thinking about, where the, the next generation of our solutions are. And we already talk about it. We said, you wanted to have better performances, but at the same time you wanted to have socioeconomic consequences of, of, helping, economically disadvantages group to have, less exposures or, zero exposure to the pollution.

From my perspective, the goal or the underlying philosophy should be basically in the mindset of looking outside of the circle, making sure that the technologies does not generate these asymmetries. And that's only possible I think, if, we create technologies that are very close to nature, right? In the agriculture revolution, the, the key aspect, right? Okay. So we were selecting some of the specific plants. Now we can use the microorganisms to, sequester carbon to, create new food or to, use it in a sense of producing all these new materials.

These are, some important parameters, for any company that want to, push it forward. But for Tandem, I think, getting into a brand, and trying to, push the envelope, to the next level of, high performance materials should be the key, key aspects.

Performance composite biomaterials

Tsung: Fantastic. Stepping outside of Tandem Repeat and talking about biomaterials generally, what do you see as some compelling or interesting applications for you beyond textiles?

Melik: So I think there is a big, interest if we can create composite materials. If you look at the materials domain first you had like basically the hard materials, right? So stone and so forth. And then you have the metals to generate industrial revolution.

And then you started to have polymers that start to mold things, make people mobile and so on. And then you have semiconductors, which were used for communication purposes, all this, computation. And then eventually you have, composite materials, which you can start to mix all of these, right?

Bioengineered materials is becoming more popular in the last couple of decades. Now we are seeing, with the data that they are quite interesting, in the sense that they do not scale, exponentially. They can even beat that exponential scale. We have seen it in dna, right?

So, we have seen that DNA cost can go much faster than the, the cost of the, Moore's Law and, and we have seen it enzymes. Cost reduction is much significant than the semiconductor industry because these are bioengineered manufactured materials. So in that domain, you can change the factory. So, as I said earlier, it's basically very interesting, unique, dynamics by itself because now you are, not only playing what inorganic materials are providing, but also you're playing with organic materials where the evolution is playing a key role.

We could look into composites, and we can try to, merge some of this inorganic materials with the organic materials. Particularly in my lab at Penn State, we have been quite interested in making layered composites and we looked into, materials. A simple example is, if you take a chalk right, you can write on the board, and it's very brittle right? So, but if you take that same chalk at 5% of protein, you make, you make the exoskeleton of a, shell, right?

So, and that's very compliant material. It's basically, it doesn't break or it's, it's tough material and so forth.

And that exoskeleton, turn into an endoskeleton, like a bond. If you start to make the, this layered material much more smaller, but now you need 20% more mid protein, so 80% inorganic, 20%.

And then our lab ask the following question, What happens if you go to, smaller scale? Where things are governed by, like layered materials like vaccines, graphenes and all these unique materials that has been discovered in the last couple of decades. We discovered that you have to increase the protein content to 40, 50% to get that compliance.

But at that level, you get very, very interesting, unique, thermal anisotropies, electrical anisotropies, coatings and so on. So that's something that's, we would like to start looking into taking out of lab very soon. so we want to make sure that we can develop this technologies to create exoskeletons, skeletons, coatings, and materials that, mimic, what we observe in nature.

Tsung: Yeah, that was super fascinating when you shared that, research paper in PNAS this year. and we can link to that as well. but, super fascinating composite. If I'm remembering correctly, the composite you made with the squid-inspired protein with graphene oxide was extremely tough. And it was also somewhat elastic.

Melik: Correct. We, we achieved a, a world record on stretchability of this material. So, so it was, it's quite interesting. As I said, take chalk. It's brittle. Add protein, it becomes tough, right? So same logic we worked on towards the scales and we obtained very interesting, unique materials.

Tsung: A few more questions here. If you had infinite funding right, and you had a world class team, what would it take to actually commercialize composite materials like that?

Melik: So, there is a lot of interesting application from nuclear, fuel cells where the thermal conductivity is a key problem to running shoes where, you want to dissipate as much as energy as as possible. So, from your tennis racket, that you want to make it more strong and durable to, your t-shirt that you wanted to show different colors or hide it from, the enemy, right?

So there's, thermal management, signature management and so on. There's lots of, lots of exciting opportunities. If I can manage to scale up, the, protein production, that will be my next, real goal of, of making this interesting technology to be, commercialized.

Tsung: One question on biosensors, because you've done some research on that too. what needs to have happened before biosensors become ubiquitous and actually, really useful and compelling?

Melik: Yeah, around 2010, I tried to actually work towards creating new biosensors and at the time, There wasn't too much interest and we couldn't find the right type of funding. And now looking back at decades, it could have been extremely interesting if we had that technology right before Covid.

That's something that I always think that we, I should have pushed independent of the funding. Sometimes people make the decisions based on the funding and sometimes, like you should really go with, with your feelings of, of what will go to the nature, right? So I'm sure, there is a lot of effort that is being done in the sensory research area these days because of all this covid pandemic and epidemic and so on.

Biomanufacturing materials could be also used for various sensing capabilities. I think there's also a big, effort in that direction, which we do not touch at this point because, we are quite busy what we are trying to do right now.

Tsung: Absolutely. I'll have to check back in, in a little while about sensors. Where would you like help and, or who would you like to hear from?

Melik: Right now our biggest challenges exist on taking the technology to the next, readiiness level in the sense of manufacturing, right? So it is very unfortunate that the manufacturing in the world is declining. There are answer to this problems, automation and so on.

I think where we need help is on the automation domain, where we can make some of this unique technologies to scale up easily, right? Always good to hear from industry leaders. And I've been trying to, talk to a lot of them, and they have been extremely helpful to me in the last couple of years because being an academic and jumping to this domain is not an easy decision. It's basically a complete different comfort level, right? So it's like you take it out and you try to see what can be done out there. So, yeah, we are learning! That's the most exciting part of it, I think, I recommend to any other academics, and I recommend to any other friend of mine.

So it's, it's quite challenging, but it's also quite exciting because, at the end of the day you accomplish things and I'm very happy to see how these things scale up, right? 10 years of work, three months of work, right? So, but without this 10 years, this will not happen. Right.

That's a good, summary of what we have been doing.

Tsung: I just wanna point out to folks that think, oh, it doesn't look like much material, but you have to look at that delta. You have to look at a three month delta, and when that delta has very, very high growth. Then, you, you're definitely, onto something that has potential. Melik, anything else we should have covered? Any parting words for our listeners?

Melik: Thank you. I think it was a great discussion and thanks for uh, having me.


Materially Better
Materially Better
Conversations on new performance materials and their applications with founders, scientists and leaders. Hosted by Tsung Xu, a repeat founder, blogger and venture partner.