THEWHO: Bio-Designer Jen Keane Weaves The Future

Jen Keane’s shoe-ready materials come from a petri dish. Image courtesy of Vita Larvo.

Jen Keane’s shoe-ready materials come from a petri dish. Image courtesy of Vita Larvo.

You may remember Jen Keane from Fabrics of Our Future Lives. She weaves a bacterium found in kombucha into biodegradable and durable footwear. It’s pretty sweet indeed, and definitely not what Keane thought she’d be doing with her life.

Keane actually intended on becoming a medical doctor and enrolled in Cornell University to do just that. She had creative talents and dreams, yes, didn’t imagine someone could be artistic and scientific, so she chose the route more stable. Then Keane heard there was a new path emerging, one that blended both of her passions. She decided to help chart it. 

After graduating with a degree in Fabrics and Materials, and following a gig at Adidas, Keane enrolled in Central Saint Martins’ legendary Material Future program, where she learned to do her magical microbial weaving. The results could revolutionize shoes as we know them, and so much more.

Eager to learn more about Keane’s FAROUT work, we rang up the American in London to ask about her inspirations, process, and goals. And she didn’t disappoint! 

Here Jen Keane discusses:

  • How science and design can save the world.

  • Why designers play an essential role in education.

  • Why microbial weaving is more craft than tech.

  • When she’ll start fundraising for her business.

  • And how innovation sometimes stinks - literally.

A bacteria-born shoe under construction. Image courtesy of Adam Toth.

A bacteria-born shoe under construction. Image courtesy of Adam Toth.

FAROUT: How did you become interested in materials and cells? Was this a long-time interest of yours? 

Jen Keane: I was always a creative, artistic child, but I come from a traditional American family which doesn't believe design is a valid career, so went to Cornell thinking I was going to go into medicine.

But then I found the Fiber Science and Apparel Design program, which was a nice mix between fashion design and the technical side of textile. It’s quite unique because most fashion programs are very traditional and industry-focused - so sketching, illustration, maybe sewing - but I got an in-depth overview of fabric. 

Then I went to work for Adidas straight after graduating. I was on a product creation traineeship — so I did everything from costing apparel to processes around apparel creation, some innovation around digital creation.

FO: That sounds like a sweet gig.

Jen: Yes. But I decided to leave in 2016 because I felt that the industry wasn't moving fast enough. Sustainability hadbecome a big topic, and there were big projects around Parlay, but I thought there was more that could be done, so I did my masters in London at Central Saint Martins in material futures, and that's where I really got exposed to this new community around bio-fabrication. 

I'm definitely not the first designer to use bacteria. A few designers have been working with kombucha tea and all sorts of fungi for I would say 10 years now. But coming into it from the perspective of being in industry and the more the technically-minded, material science side, I felt there was a big disparity between what scientists were interested in about these materials and what designers were doing with it. 

I wanted to bridge that gap between the science behind it and how potentially we could design with these materials.

FO: Science for so long was about pushing as far away from nature as possible. It was, “What can we synthesize as humans? What can we do that nature can't?” And recently, largely because we have no other choice, science is now like, "Oh, how can we use science to get closer to nature?" And using bacteria and fungi is part of that.

Jen: Yeah. What I've been trying to show as a designer is the value of — not just design, but good design within making these changes happen. Scientists have been working on these things, but it's a language that the public doesn't necessarily understand, so it doesn't get adopted as quickly. 

So, I think designers can help translate what this work means and the place it can have in society; and also approach it from different ways.

It was really interesting working with biologists at Imperial College, to learn how they work with organisms and what their processes were and learning how the scientific method works and comparing and contrasting to design and our different value systems. Approaching it from different angles gets to a different result. That was quite interesting.

FO: It does seem like we're approaching a tipping point where art and science are converging as people learn science can influence and shape design, literally and figuratively. 

Jen: Definitely.

FO: And artists and designers are essential to translating that, as you said. So, what does your family think now? You said growing up design wasn't valued...

Jen Keane hard at work. Image courtesy of Adam Toth.

Jen Keane hard at work. Image courtesy of Adam Toth.

Jen: As soon as I got an internship when I was still in university with Nike, my dad was like, “Oh, wait. There's actually an industry and there's jobs here.” I'm like, “Yeah. Who do you think makes all of your clothes?! There are people who have jobs that do this.” So, I think they've come around. They're starting to get it, especially as this becomes more needed. 

When I was growing up, I don't know if you felt this way, but there was this “You can be a scientist or a creative” attitude. There was not really an “in the middle.” And now there's huge demand for people that can do both. 

FO: It’s also about raised awareness — I remember when recycling was first a thing; I was in school and they were like, "This is called recycling, and what we're going to do is turn these old bottles into new bottles." It was new and exciting, but we didn't have the same urgency. And I think that even people who are born five to 10 years after me, they grew up with a much broader sense of why such moves are needed.

Jen: Yeah, for sure. It's ironic, though, that you speak of recycling. Even now recycling is so bad. That’s something that I found surprising when I did my masters and started doing more independent research into the systems around these things. 

Really these systems are quite bad. You would think we would have figured that out by now. It’s very decentralized and it's been run like a private business. Every government does it differently, every country. But even within those countries — like I'm living in the UK right now, in London, and every borough has a different recycling policy. Every borough

And they don't educate consumers, and there isn't much incentive for brands to, or at least groceries and whatnot, to use recyclable things, because it is so decentralized, and a lot of the stuff gets thrown away anyway. 

FO: Speaking of complicated, is it difficult working with bacteria itself? It seems like it would be so intricate to get down in there.

Jen: Yes and no. I picked a bacteria that's pretty easy to work with, as bacteria go, but the more challenging bits were the things that microbiologists deal with on a daily basis: Sterilization, how to build an environment so that other things don't get in, like mold; how to get the bacteria to grow the way you want it to grow — I had to build all my own tools and containers and environments. And yeah, it was hard. 

FO: Oh, wow. Yeah, I guess a new material requires a new set-up.

A piece of utilitarian - and sustainable - art. Image courtesy of Vita Larvo.

A piece of utilitarian - and sustainable - art. Image courtesy of Vita Larvo.

Jen: And I would say it was less a scientific process and more of a craft process — almost as if you were learning how to bake bread with yeast or something. It's also more like a visual — you get it by feel. 

Yes, I've got recipes for different foods, medias, and temperatures and whatnot, but I wouldn't say that I was getting down on a microscopic level, looking at the bacteria. It was more engaging with it on a more visceral level — seeing how it behaves, studying how they grow. 

So, yeah, it was hard, and a lot of times things didn't work. Oh, and it's a very smelly, dirty, messy process. Well, it's not dirty, but messy. Very clean but messy. And there was a lot of times — I was doing it all my kitchen.

FO: Oh, really?

Jen: Yeah. My flat mate, bless her, she must have been up to here. I was trying to keep it out of the way, but it definitely did smell, so it was a struggle, to say the least.

And now that I've graduated, I'm trying to build up my own business around a few different things, one of which is to continue that project, but there are challenges of finding a space that you can do this in and — it's not an easy field to break into.

Innovation in process, courtesy of Jen Keane.

Innovation in process, courtesy of Jen Keane.

FO: I'm sure, because you're helping create the field. 

Jen: Hopefully. 

FO: Do different bacteria produce different types of threads? Does one bacterium produce a stronger material?

Jen: There are quite a few different bacteria, and I'm still working with scientists at Imperial College and they have a few other strains that they're going to let me try. But I'm kind of stuck with the one that I've got, just because there's enough things that I need to figure about material without changing the organism.

There are lots of different types of bacteria and fungi that produce different materials. Bolt Threads uses yeast to grow spider silk; Modern Meadows uses yeast to grow collagen to create a leather substitute. But weaving and creating these hybrid materials like I'm doing — I haven't seen anybody else doing it yet. 

FO: Are you fundraising now? Or, how are you looking at the future?

Jen: How am I looking at the future…

FO: I know, that's a scary question!

Jen: Yeah. It is a scary question! Since I graduated, I’ve done a lot of exhibitions, talked to different people, looked into what my options were. A lot of people were saying, "Go fundraise. Do a startup. Get capital and do it very quickly." And there have been a few companies — Bolt, Modern Meadow are two good examples of that, and they have been reasonably successful. That being said, neither of them is profitable at this point. 

And then you get into a space where it's all dependent on the material becoming a scalable commodity item. But, one, there's so much we don't know about this process that I can't say, "Oh, I can scale this up and make something commercial out of it." And I also felt that wouldn’t do the material or this new practice justice. I think different business models need to be developed.

What I've been doing is consulting, similar to what I used to do for Adidas: material sustainability consulting for startups, because I realized that the knowledge that I have about sustainable materials and technical materials, it's not as common as you think.

So, I'm trying to build a business around helping others make things properly.

FO: Oh, cool!

Jen: Yeah! I'm in residence with another innovation agency who has different expertise, which I can talk more about later, once we figure out our product plans for the next few months. I'm also doing another project with Imperial College on the next evolution of the bacteria, which hopefully I will talk more about at some point. 

There's a lot of projects going on, but they're all very dependent on it working. 

The future, I don't know what the future holds, but I'm going to give it a good try and see how to best contribute to the circular economy by using my material sustainability knowledge. That's the plan. What that means, I'm flexible with. 

Jen Keane’s gorgeous, innovative, and sustainable final product. Image courtesy Adam Toth.

Jen Keane’s gorgeous, innovative, and sustainable final product. Image courtesy Adam Toth.