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Uncommon Threads

Bioengineering efforts make apparel from proteins.

A bite from a venomous spider once left Sue Levin ’85 gravely ill after a backpacking trip. When she recovered, she went on to enjoy a variety of careers.

Today, she’s something of a spider promoter as chief commercial officer at Bolt Threads, a Bay Area bioengineering firm drawing national attention for developing a lab-grown spider silk spun into a necktie.

“The company’s mission and its performance got me over my spider issues,” she laughs.

A history major and team captain in softball and soccer at Swarthmore, Levin went on to work as a global director of women’s sports marketing at Nike, and then started Lucy, a women’s activewear retailer. She joined Bolt Threads in 2014, becoming the first non-scientist and non-Ph.D. holder on the company’s executive team.

“For the first year or so,” she says, “I think I understood only 20 percent of what was being said most of the time.”

Though spider silk was studied in the development of Bolt’s microsilk, no arachnids are used in its production. Somewhat akin to polyester, the microfiber is made from proteins rather than hydrocarbons.

Bolt’s aim is to replace polyester with protein polymers made from renewable resources, and to design them using processes that are cleaner than what is currently used in the textile industry.

The company has agreements, due to be announced this year, with several more of the world’s leading manufacturers of apparel, footwear, and accessories.

“Somebody in your closet is working with us,” Levin says.