Ep. 25: Future-Ready Fibers with Tessa Callaghan of Keel Labs

This episode features Tessa Callaghan, co-founder and CEO of Keel Labs, which produces a fiber from seaweed material being used in the fashion and other industries.

In addition to sharing her and her co-founder’s journey to starting Keel Labs, Tessa covers what they experienced firsthand as designers in the fashion industry, some of the ways that the material they’re producing compares and contrasts both to conventional synthetics and natural fibers, and where she sees the industry headed.

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Keith Anderson: Welcome to Decarbonizing Commerce, where we explore what’s new, interesting, and actionable at the intersection of climate innovation and commerce. I’m your host, Keith Anderson, and together we’ll meet entrepreneurs and innovators reinventing retail, e-commerce, and consumer products through the lenses of low carbon and commercial viability. 

Welcome to another episode of the Decarbonizing Commerce Podcast. I’m your host, Keith Anderson, and our guest this week is Tessa Callaghan, co-founder and CEO of Keel Labs, which is producing a fabric from seaweed material that’s being used in the fashion and other industries. And I continue to be really interested in emerging ingredients and materials,

not only for CPG products, but consumer products, including apparel and, you know, among the most interesting materials, seaweed is really emerging as, an interesting and high potential material for a lot of reasons, which you’ll hear more about as you get to know Tessa today, and you may have heard in episode 17 with Julia Marsh of Sway.

So, you’ll learn a lot about she and her co-founder’s journey to starting Keel Labs, what they experienced firsthand as designers in the fashion industry, some of the environmental impacts of the materials that they had available as options and some of the limitations and shortcomings with those same materials, some of the ways that the material that they’re producing compares and contrasts both to synthetics and natural fibers, and where she sees the industry headed over the next few years.

So, I learned a ton from Tessa, and I’m excited for you to meet Tessa Callaghan, co-founder and CEO of Keel Labs. 

Tessa, thanks so much for joining us for the Decarbonizing Commerce podcast.

Tessa Callaghan: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. 

Keith Anderson: Well, for those that may not be familiar, why don’t we start with, you telling us what Keel Labs is and what it does and how you and your team came to start it.

Tessa Callaghan: Yeah, of course. So, at Keel Labs, our whole mission is to take ocean derived resources, and use them to solve some of the world’s most challenging and pressing crises. Our flagship product is called Kelsun, and this is a fiber that is derived from Seaweeds, and is applicable in textile applications in a wide range from clothes to interiors to basically anywhere that you see fibers used.

And you know, really the core reason of starting this initiative and founding Keel Labs was around the need to address the waste, the pollution, the negative impacts that the fashion industry in particular has on our planet, and that have yet to be solved in its entirety. And so, my background, along with my co-founder’s, was in fashion and in textiles and we’re working in the industry and really experiencing firsthand the lack of options that we are being provided with and seeing some of the bottlenecks that were, you know, going to be occurring both as, you know, agricultural yields are decreasing and as the demand for natural fibers was increasing. And so it was quite a circuitous route for us, not necessarily, you know, I think, the intention that either of us had when we started in the fashion industry.

But push really came to shove, and we saw that there was a really big opportunity to harness the massive potential that the ocean, and primarily seaweeds, have to help revolutionize these, you know, really resource intensive industries.

Keith Anderson: The ocean is so hot right now, and so I want to come, I want to come back to that. 

Tessa Callaghan: Literally and figuratively.

Keith Anderson: I know. I was very excited to drop that one when I spoke with you. 

Tessa Callaghan: Regardless.

Keith Anderson: But, I’d love to spend a couple minutes, going deeper on sort of the two drivers that I heard you describe there. One of which was the environmental impact of fibers in the textile industry.

You know, many of our listeners come from that side of the industry, but many are also in CPG and grocery. And, I know they all wear clothes, but they’re not as close to the business of apparel. And then the second thing I heard that I actually wasn’t expecting, but you mentioned was the demand for natural fibers and some of the supply constraints or challenges with diminishing yields, which, you know, we talk about that more and more often as a driver of shifting strategy across retail and consumer products.

So much of the focus is on your first point around minimizing environmental impact, but increasingly what seems to be motivating companies to make changes even sooner is adapting to supply chain challenges and constraints by finding more resilient materials. So maybe starting with the environmental impact, can you share more about what you learned about the environmental impact of what your options were when you got into the industry?

Tessa Callaghan: Yeah, that’s a really great question. And I think, you know, really was one of the core catalysts when it came to our analysis and the reason that we ended up really looking to the ocean as a resource. So one of the primary things that we were seeing is that, shouldn’t be a surprise, but, you know, various materials and, you know, industries obviously like to highlight, where they’re winning and it’s very easy to kind of harp on the singular challenges.

So as an example, you know, polyester synthetics primarily deal with the fact that they’re petroleum based and there’s microplastic shedding. And that’s kind of their core focus. And so when we think about, or when people typically talk about natural materials, it sounds like it’s the solution in that, “oh great, it avoids all of those things and it’s natural” and that’s fantastic, but what’s really underneath the surface there is there’s mass amounts of water usage, there’s mass pesticide fertilizers required, arable land degradation in a lot of cases, and a lot of chemical processing post cultivation. And so when we kind of look at the industry on a holistic level, it’s not just carbon emissions and microplastics, it’s chemicals, it’s land, it’s water, and so rather than saying we’re just going to be able to compare and say, we’re not using microplastics, how do we actually solve the underlying challenges of the industry as a whole? 

And I think that that really needs to be not just for us, but on a kind of planetary scale, how we evaluate the benefit and the drawbacks of various innovations.

Keith Anderson: And that explains a lot. What about on the second point, you know, were you finding challenges with, quality, consistency of supply of some of the existing alternatives?

Tessa Callaghan: Yeah. I mean, I think that I guess to their benefit because of, you know, in a lot of cases, hundreds, if not thousands of years of cultivation and industrial know how, less so on the quality side and more so on the understanding that the quantities, are not able to be, or will not be able to continue to be what they once were, or even what they are today.

So there’s kind of a combination of factors. One is that due to climate change and soil health and things of that nature, the yields we can see year over year in natural crop cultivations across agricultural systems is in a lot of degrees declining. And on top of that, not only because of certain, you know, policy implementations, and there’s a lot of growth there, but also from a consumer demand perspective, and this, you know, knowing shift away from microplastics and fossil fuels.

We know that we don’t like those. So there’s an increase in demand so the match of what the plan is able to sustain on a land based perspective and what the demand today and, you know, going forward is going to be, are just not equal.

Keith Anderson: Got it. So you did some analysis and it led you to the ocean and specifically seaweed. How did you end up there? And what are some of the benefits?

Tessa Callaghan: So for us, you know, as I was saying, we really started in this analysis perspective. 

I didn’t grow up saying, “I’m going to find a way to use seaweed and it’s going to be the way,” it was really a matter of, you know, necessity. And so when we think about, you know, on one perspective, volume, we know that when we think about textiles and fibers, there’s a massive consumption, which is a whole separate problem as a whole.

But that we need to make sure that we have access to robust volumes and volumes that, are readily available and, you know, aren’t requiring this like mass scale intervention. And so, seaweed is one of the most abundant and fast growing organisms on the planet and really diverse, and you know, found on nearly every continent.

And so from that perspective, it ticked the box. Additionally, because of its fast growth and a number of other properties, it also has benefits for ocean and thus planetary health, from filtering waste runoff, to sequestering CO2, to, you know, new studies kind of leading to the, you know, deacidification of the ocean itself.

And so there are all these benefits.

 And on top of that, even if we take all of those away, really what we’re seeing is this is a crop that requires zero chemical intervention. We don’t have to add fertilizers. We don’t have to add water. We don’t have to add pesticides. And so from that perspective, you’re already starting from a clean slate.

And so all of those kind of boxes combined for us to say, what a beautiful source. If we can just start clean, can we not continue to remain that way as much as physically possible? And to that end, already address all of those kinds of holistic components when it comes to overarching impact.

Keith Anderson: This may be a naive question, but I’m comfortable with that. Is this a, sort of naturally harvested, source of material? Or are you, or is the industry effectively farming it? That is, you know, are there artificial installations where we’re cultivating it? Are we, managing certain territorial sections of the ocean?

I just don’t know enough about how the supply is managed.

Tessa Callaghan: Yeah, this is a really fascinating question. On one hand, all of those are true. And on the other hand, we’re seeing a lot of developments in the space. So there are certain unknowns and certain things that are remaining to be, I think worked out on a global scale, but, you know, basically there are a number of different ways of, that seaweeds are currently cultivated or accessed.

Some of that is just naturally. Ideally, you know, those people that are, you know, harvesting are ensuring, you know, we’re taking very close consideration of the local ecology. There are strict measures in place. This is really, really critical because it is, you know, a backbone of a lot of these ecosystems.

And there is also known, and a lot of it is, farmed. So whether that’s on lines on the coasts or some of these new developments happening in, you know, deep waters, there’s a number of different ways of basically growing and cultivating. Some of that’s dependent on species. Some of that’s dependent on kind of regional parameters.

But it’s really a fascinating sector outside of ourselves as a whole, because there is so much promise for seaweed cultivation and harvesting, and so a lot of new kind of technologies and regulatory practices and things like that will really continue to evolve over the coming years.

Keith Anderson: Can you describe the technology or the process that you use to transform the raw material into Kelsun? You know, when I go to your website and look at the material, it doesn’t resemble seaweed. So I imagine there’s some magic somewhere in the mix.

Tessa Callaghan: There certainly is some magic. Some people refer to that magic as science, but, you know. I like saying magic better, actually. But, but yeah, so basically how it works is that we extract polymers that are abundant in seaweeds. We then take those polymers, create a formulation, and then input that into existing fiber manufacturing systems.

And so, with that extraction, again, you’re not using raw seaweed and just, you know, chopping it up whole and making a sushi shirt. It’s really about how can we work with these core polymers that are available to us? And also, how do we put this into the existing supply chain systems while removing the toxic chemicals that are typified in those systems?

And so for us, we’re able to work on and work with the same know how, the same scales, really the same frameworks that the industry is built off of, but replace that with something again that’s fundamentally better than what it previously was.

Keith Anderson: That plug and play characteristic, in many of the conversations I have, seems to be pretty important, just given the power of inertia and the capital intensity of changing production, processes and technology. So I imagine that works in your favor, you know. when you say it’s a fundamentally better, approach, you’ve already identified some of the clear benefits. 

You know, it maintains many of the characteristics of conventional fibers, but it is lacking some of the toxic and problematic chemicals and microplastics. You know, when you’re working with the industry to develop applications and use cases, how are they comparing and contrasting it, and, you know, what are the trade offs and decision frameworks that the industry is using to find out where to apply it?

Tessa Callaghan: So this is really not only developed a lot over the last few years, but I think we’re again, in all of these conversations, there’s just a lot of change happening. On one hand, this is still a very new topic and workflow and interests of the textile sector as a whole. And so I think that there remains for a lot of companies, a level of evaluation and understanding of how to navigate a new material because we’ve been so historically reliant on, you know, these like primary categories of, you know, natural and synthetic. You know, natural being cotton or linen or more new viscose versus, you know, polyesters and nylons. And so when they’re evaluating introducing a new raw material. The initial evaluations that we were seeing were just, “is this the same as this?,” And are, “is this the same as polyester? Is this the same as cotton?” And although, relevance and similarities and understanding are key in those categories, when you’re introducing something that is fundamentally new, like from a molecular level, it is not the same.

You are going to have differences. Those differences can be beneficial depending on how you look at it. Or negative, depending on how you look at that. And so the way that we really position and view Kelsun is around this kind of new natural category. So again, we see a real uptick in demand for natural materials for a lot of those reasons. 

And currently there really is no fiber or source available that has, you know, the fundamental feel of a naturally sourced fiber. So like outside of a man made cellulosic or, things like that. And so our fiber looks and feels kind of like a combination of, you know, cotton and a linen, but with a really, soft hand feel of more elevated fibers and, you know, has a similar performance to man made cellulosics, even though we’re not a cellulosic.

And so I think the industry is kind of trying to wrap its head around “how do we interpret, how do we describe, and how do we validate things when they’re intersectional?” I think you also touched on, what are some of the benefits and some of the drawbacks? One of the things that we typically have to, you know, work through and evaluate with potential customers is this idea of, you know, we want something that is compostable or biodegradable or, you know, even biocompatible. 

But we’re also used to working with polyesters, so we want it to last forever. And having the conversation of, you know, so it’s okay to, to have your preference, but we need to understand that if you want something to go away, it’s going to have to go away. And I think that there are interesting conversations to that end that continue to evolve and that, you know, really we’ve seen a lot of change in over the last couple of years in terms of understanding and the kind of in depth knowledge required to navigate these conversations.

Keith Anderson: Hey folks, this is the part of the show where we say thank you and see you soon to the general audience. Plus and higher tier members of decarbonize.co, stay tuned for the rest of the episode.

Hey, it’s Keith Anderson from decarbonize.co inviting you to join our brand new Slack community for retail, e-commerce, and consumer product professionals that want to keep up with what’s new, interesting, and actionable in industry, climate, and sustainability action. and connect with your peers. As I got into this work, one of the things that I found so invigorating is how passionate and willing to help everyone is.

But I haven’t found a community composed of people across functions in the industry that are working in or want to work in climate and sustainability. And so we’re launching the community to connect. Both sustainability experts and practitioners and people in conventional roles like product design, packaging, supply chain marketing, and merchandising to share their work, ask for help, connect about career opportunities.

Keep up with the latest industry development and we’ll be previewing who our upcoming guests on the podcast will be and giving you an opportunity to pose questions to our guests. So I can’t wait to meet you and have you meet some of the other members of the community. To join us, you can visit decarbonize.co. You’ll see a call to action on the homepage or use the intelligence menu at the top of the page where you’ll also see a link to join.

 And, Tessa, if, you know, folks want to get in touch with you or learn more about Keel, where would you send them?

Tessa Callaghan: Always get in touch and definitely reach out. You can absolutely follow us on Instagram, or on LinkedIn for those professionals. But we also have contact on our website, depending on what type of conversation you’re looking to have, we’ll direct you in the right place, and hopefully have a chat because it’s really important for us to be connected with our community, hear people out, make sure that we’re reflecting the needs of greater industries in the planet as a whole.

So hoping anyone that wants to get in touch, we’re here to have a chat.

Keith Anderson: Great. Well, thank you so much for joining me. This was really interesting and, great to have you on the show.

Tessa Callaghan: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. This was a delight. 

Keith Anderson: Thanks for listening. I’m Keith Anderson, the executive producer and host of Decarbonizing Commerce. Sonic Futures handles audio, music, and video production. If you enjoyed the show, we’d really appreciate it if you took a moment to subscribe and leave a review or share it with a colleague. For the full episode and more member exclusive insight and analysis, join the decarbonizing commerce community at decarbonize.co. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you on the next episode of decarbonizing commerce.

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