Bulletproof Skin and Spider Silk Shoes

In the media she's called a bio-artist, but Jalia Essaïdi (35) is much more than that and cannot be put in a box. She calls herself a hybrid: an entrepreneur, scientist and artist who combines biotech, creativity, tech and nature. Her out of the box thinking made her world famous when she created bulletproof human skin from spider silk in 2011. This futuristic tissue was the beginning of her Startup Inspidere and her foundation BioArt Laboratories.

Bulletproof Skin

"I was a very headstrong child and my father used to tell me that he did not mind what I was going to do as long as I would not start tattooing or something like that. And so when I was eighteen that’s what I did: I started a tattoo shop," Jalila Essaïdi says laughingly. After some years of tattooing designs on skin, she quit and entered the School of Arts in Tilburg and after graduation continued to study Bio art at The University of Leiden. Human skin had always interested her but it was her fascination with nature especially that inspired her to come up with the idea of bulletproof skin: ‘Spiders are beautiful creatures. The silk they produce is proportionately many times stronger than steel. It intrigued me and I started to read publications about genetically modified goats that could produce milk with spider silk proteins in much larger quantities than a spider can. I read that the material could be used in bulletproof vests and thought why bother with the vests? What if your skin could create spider silk protein and become bulletproof? 

With this idea Jalila won the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award in 2010 and by winning the award she received the means to develop her idea. She worked with Utah State University which is specialized in genetically modifying goats and silkworms that produce milk containing spider silk proteins. Once the silk proteins were extracted from the milk, specialists in South Korea and Germany were able to make ‘spider silk fibre’ from it. Biochemists of the Leiden University Medical Centre could finally merge the ‘spider silk’ with human skin. When the skin was ready she worked with specialists from the Dutch Forensic Institute to test if the skin was bulletproof. Tests showed that the skin could stop a bullet fired at reduced speed. Jalila’s bulletproof skin caught the attention of scientist and media from all over the world. Even the American army knocked on her door.

Ethical Dilemma

"The bulletproof skin was initially a work of art about safety and it was weird to receive piles of emails from soldiers all over the world who wanted to have bulletproof skin," she says. When the American army wanted to invest in her product, she struggled with the idea. "I don’t want to stimulate war. If I sell my technology they could do whatever they wanted to do with it: develop the skin even more and even exclude other countries from the product."The money that is invested in war and military applications is huge, but making a profit only is not my ultimate goal: my product should also contribute to society. That makes me sometimes wonder: am I a real entrepreneur? Yet, for me, a good entrepreneur is changing the world for the better. I am now researching how to use the skin for skin burns and bedsores. With my company Inspidere I want to take products made from spider silk to market. The sustainable material can be used in a variety of products even in running shoes. I will start with protective clothing such as helmets and knee-guards."

Entrepreneurship in Primary School

"I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. My father was a medical engineer at Philips and we often had entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, and philosophers for dinner. The fascinating diverse discussions at these dinners taught me to see things from another point of view and how to make a connection. It is an essential skill for a young entrepreneur: you should keep your own goals in mind but when co-operating with different parties always ask yourself what’s in it for them? I learned this at home; it is a skill that is not taught in school. In the end the current curriculum in school does not teach us how to become entrepreneurs. Young inventors might learn how to write a business plan in school but they are not being taught how to implement it. For instance, when I started creating the bulletproof skin people told me to get a patent. Drafting patents is complex and you need to hire people who are trained to prepare such documents. The fees these specialists ask are very high. I think they should make exceptions for startups to make it affordable. My point is that it would have helped me a lot if I had learned about matters such as patents and protecting intellectual property at school. Entrepreneurship should be part of the curriculum, no matter what study you are following. Our generation will create their own jobs; they will not go for the kind of job that includes an office and a boss. To be able to do so you have to be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship should already be introduced in primary school."

Clothes from Cow Manure

To create the bulletproof skin Jalila had to cooperate with different specialists who all worked on their own little island. By connecting and bringing all the expertise together, she was able to create bulletproof skin in only five months. This inspired her to set up a foundation in 2011 'BioArt Laboratories', a mix of a lab and an art studio in the city Eindhoven. In this lab, scientists, artists, designers and tech specialists have the opportunity to work on innovative ideas together and they receive the materials and means to experiment and explore. "One of the results that came out of this cross-over collaboration is a solution for the excess of cow manure in the Netherlands. Cow manure is phosphate-rich and in large quantities it is harmful to the environment. The Netherlands is bound by a phosphate quota and can therefore emit only a maximum of phosphate. We have developed a system that turns cow manure into products such as bio plastic, paper, capsules and even viscose. With viscose we can make fabrics and clothes. We will have our first fashion show with our haute couture collection made out of cow manure on June the 23rd. By turning waste into useful materials we are solving the cow manure problem. With BioArt Laboratories I want to facilitate innovation, create new materials and new startups and I want to become the biggest in Europe!"

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