“Fail fast.” It is easy to fall in love with a technology and spend years developing it only to learn it has fatal flaws. Instead, we attempt to fail fast and quickly learn what doesn’t work and how we can modify our approach or product to respond.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Rebecca Lacouture, Co-Founder, President and COO.
With a passion for clean solutions for human health, Beck leads Evolved By Nature™’s development, engineering and operations. Her findings have led to critical advancements in silk technology, and she is the inventor for several patents on the structure of silk biomaterials. Beck spearheaded research and development at Serica Technologies and Allergan before co-founding Evolved By Nature in 2013. She was named one of Boston Business Journal’s 40 under 40 in 2015. Beck earned her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering and BS in Mechanical Engineering from Tufts University. When not in the lab, she can be found spending time with her husband and two young sons.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I had initially planned to go to medical school after earning my undergraduate degree, but fate intervened. I met my now business partner of 20 years, Dr. Greg Altman, at Tufts University, where he was the teaching assistant in my introduction to biotechnology engineering class. After learning about his graduate research with silk, I fell in love with the idea of researching in a lab and asked to join his project team. This is when I first started working with silk. Our first technology was a silk-based implantable medical device that we sold to Allergan in 2010.
Personal life events sent me further down the path toward working with silk as a green chemistry platform. I was diagnosed with cancer in my late 20’s, which was a complete shock and defined a new normal for me. I became very aware of the types of ingredients I was putting on my sensitive skin during treatment and advised by my doctors to really look twice at the labels. I ended up having to toss many of the products I had been using for years.
My business partner and I had the “aha” moment in 2013 — we had been able to impact the lives of those already diagnosed with an illness with silk, but what if we could have an impact further upstream before people got sick? We decided to look at silk in a whole new way, in liquid form rather than as a fiber. That’s how Activated Silk™ technology was born and we established our mission of advancing the world’s health by replacing petroleum-derived chemicals in everyday products.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
We’ve created an entirely new green chemistry platform called Activated Silk™ technology using a single natural and renewable feedstock: the silk cocoon. This technology has the potential to impact the multi-billion dollar chemicals industry that relies heavily on petroleum, a feedstock we know is not beneficial to human or environmental health. These chemicals are used in everything from personal care products to textile finishing agents but are invisible to all of us.
In contrast, silk has a thousands-year-old history of biocompatibility with the human body (even being used in sutures) and is biodegradable in the environment. The silkworm has only one food source: mulberry leaves, which sustainably regenerate using the sun and the rain. For our own processes to create liquid silk, we source imperfect cocoons from family farms that would otherwise be discarded by the textile industry. We don’t require one continuous thread and thereby avoid the reeling process, making our product cruelty-free.
We liquefy the silk cocoons in a process that uses only salt, water and heat in a facility powered by renewable energy. The silk molecule is incredibly versatile and we’re able to configure it in many different ways, resulting in different properties that can then be incorporated in consumer products. For example, one configuration of the silk molecule acts as a surfactant in soaps and cleansers, while another helps improve moisture-wicking in nylon. We’re able to reduce or completely replace the use of petroleum-derived chemicals that currently provide these properties with a natural alternative in products across the textile, personal care and medical industries while meeting or exceeding the performance consumers expect.
We are the only company working with silk in this way, and we have more than 75 patented molecules to-date. We’re working with textile brands and mills across the globe to swap chemical baths for Activated Silk, we have a clean skincare line, and we are now producing an FDA-registered clean hand sanitizer with just four natural ingredients. Looking forward, our goal is to continue transforming the chemical and consumer products landscape with Activated Silk.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh, absolutely — a couple from my freshman year at Tufts University stick out in my mind. The first was during a lab exercise where gloves were necessary for sterile technique. I was sitting in a hood with my now co-founder Greg to put on the gloves and somehow, I ended up with mine on backwards. I was a newbie in the lab and way too embarrassed to draw attention to my glove predicament, and I thought I could play it off anyways. I worked the whole time with my gloves on the wrong way which was awkward to say the least. I thought I had really pulled it off, but of course Greg noticed and completely called me out on it afterwards.
The other mistake was when Greg trusted me to look after the cell cultures in one of his active experiments while he was out of town. All I had to do was feed the cells and keep them alive until he got back. I was confident I had it handled. Of course, I killed them all. I had to call Greg and tell him that all of his cell cultures were dead and that I had completely ruined his experiment!
These might seem like small examples, but they taught me critical lessons I still use to guide my work today: ask for help (or ‘fess up) early on, trust the people you work with, and rely on your teams to figure out how to solve problems collectively.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
One of my early mentors was my high school math teacher, Ms. Turner. I’m a self-professed geek who quit band and didn’t take study hall so that I could double up on math classes as a freshman. Ms. Turner was the chair of the department and cleared the way for me to be able to do that. She was someone who would always push students to their full potential. For example, Ms. Turner would give me different math tests from the rest of the students in her classes which at the time I completely pushed back on! But her philosophy was, “if you can do more math, you should be pushed to do more math.” Her encouragement continued throughout my high school career and she was a big advocate for me to attend Mount Holyoke College during my senior year of high school and take additional classes there. From her, I learned to push myself to my limits — to not just go with the flow, but to really figure out how to get the most out of my skills. Ms. Turner also taught me the importance of finding someone who will advocate for you and help get you to where you need to be.
I also have to mention my Co-Founder Greg here as well. While I was undergoing cancer treatment, Greg came to visit me in the hospital. I will never forget his words to me — “Are you just going to lay there and have a pity party, or are you going to get up and do something about it?” Talk about a perspective shift! For me, those words provided the motivation to heal and start the next phase of my life and career, which involved the founding of our green chemistry company, Evolved By Nature and our clean skincare line, Silk Therapeutics. Beyond his ability to express gentle and encouraging sentiments, Greg is someone who doesn’t rely on a number of years of experience or even previous training to identify and nurture potential in his teams. He’s taught me to find people who will work hard and learn, and figure out how to get the most out of them. I was a prime example having begun working with him as a freshman in his lab when I knew virtually nothing!
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
We believe innovation and disruption is positive when there is true potential to improve the health of both people and the planet, without sacrificing one for the other. So many of the seemingly disparate issues we are facing right now — environmental injustice, COVID-19, biodiversity loss, climate change — are inextricably linked. We need broad, systemic change driven by innovation to protect both human health and environmental health.
At the same time, we need to ensure those solutions are truly better in the long-term. This is where we see that disruption can have a “not-so-positive” side. In textiles especially, there is a tremendous amount of innovation from well-meaning companies trying to make positive strides towards sustainability. This includes everything from plant-based leather, to making clothing from recycled bottles, to biosynthetic fabrics that mimic silk. As scientists, we’ve learned to question everything in the search for better alternatives. Does plant-based leather still require toxic finishing chemicals to give it a similar hand feel to animal-based leather? Does the plastic from a recycled water bottle now worn next-to-skin have short- or long-term implications for human health such as endocrine disruption? What level of energy does the fermentation process require to reproduce natural silk, does it rely on corn or sugar, and is it scalable? We applaud innovation; it’s critical to advance us from where we are today — but we need to make sure the solutions being offered are truly better for human and planetary health in the long term, not just the short term. And we need to make sure these innovations can scale without being tremendously resource-intensive or transferring damage to another sector. There is a tendency to get caught up in the exciting potential of a new solution, but that’s really how we got to where we are today, with petroleum-based chemicals forming the basis of a huge variety of the products we use everyday.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
“Fail fast.” It is easy to fall in love with technology and spend years developing it only to learn it has fatal flaws. Instead, we attempt to fail fast and quickly learn what doesn’t work and how we can modify our approach or product to respond.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
We’re looking at industries that rely the most heavily on petroleum-based chemistry and whose products are ubiquitous in everyday life. Right now, that’s in textiles and personal care — but with a goal of improving the world’s health, it’s not where we’ll stop.
Our newest innovation is an evolution of hand sanitizer using Activated Silk technology, a product we’re all using more than ever right now. When we started looking at the labels of most brands, we found they contain harsh ingredients such as benzalkonium chloride (BZK), petroleum-based and non-degradable thickening agents such as acrylates, endocrine disruptors such as benzophenone, fragrances, and other unnecessary chemicals. This is a product that is applied to skin and washed down the drain with increasing frequency but was never designed for this much use. In addition, we’re seeing the repercussions of unsafe ingredients, with 100+ brands recalled due to methanol and other toxic substances. As chemists and manufacturers, we knew there was a better way. We created a natural, four-ingredient formula (including 70% alcohol, Activated Silk, hydroxypropyl cellulose and purified water USP) that moisturizes hands while being biocompatible and biodegradable when washed down the drain. We also test all of the ingredients from our suppliers ourselves to ensure they meet our internal quality standards, which are more strict than FDA requirements.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I’d say one is the challenge of family vs. career, especially when you are operating a startup. I always wanted to have children and I’m now the mom of two young boys — I took maternity leave twice as we started Evolved By Nature, which is not something a male in a senior position is often going to do. We try to prioritize family across the board in our company, but there are always challenges when you run a small company.
More broadly, there are challenges that women face when looking to raise funding to start their businesses. As a recent example, we’re looking to approach funding for a women’s health organization and while you’d expect that having a woman in the lead would be beneficial, in this case especially, the data actually shows the opposite.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
“The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. I read it after my Mom died of pancreatic cancer, and it really struck a chord with me — especially around the things that actually matter in life and how you make the most of it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Always remember to think” — funnily enough, this is something my Dad used to say as I was walking out the door as a kid and teen but it still applies as an adult!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We’re just getting started inspiring a movement toward healthier chemicals in everyday consumer goods! It’s an issue that’s hovering out on the fringes but hasn’t been fully adopted into broad consumer consciousness like other movements, such as eating organic foods or looking at skincare ingredients. But we know petroleum-derived chemicals are used in a huge array of the products we use daily. Producing these chemicals has impacts on our water systems, the climate, biodiversity and economic justice to name a few, so the potential is big!
Our goal is to impact the world’s health as far upstream as possible. I got into engineering to impact health at the back end, for people that were already sick. But, if we can get into the front end, before health issues arise, it would be a good legacy to leave future generations.
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