Jan 24, 2022
By Julie Wolf
Tômtex: Designing the Material Revolution

Bio-based materials are the future, and Tômtex is designing the petrochemical-free revolution. The New York-based startup has garnered awards from design schools and fashion competitions for its material, which uses seashell waste as its foundation. By using entirely green chemistries, Tômtex creates entirely biodegradable exotic leather substitutes with incredible strength and beauty.

Watch Tômtex present at IndieBio NY Class 3 Demo Day

We spoke with Tômtex CEO Uyen Tran about her technology and her vision for the future of materials.

How did your background expose you to the waste of fast fashion?

I grew up in Danang, Vietnam, and experienced textile pollution and leather manufacturing just a few blocks from my home. 

Growing up, I didn’t have any new clothes to wear, and I wore secondhand clothes, which were discarded from the Western countries. And I developed the passion for fashion because I learned of the brand, and I learned of the designer from those secondhand clothes, clothes like Ralph Lauren, Nike, Adidas.

So fast forward, I moved to New York, and worked as a fashion designer and textile designer here for a few years. And, instantly, I can connect right away where the problem comes from.

What did you learn as a designer about fashion waste?

Fossil fuel materials and fabrics are very cheap, and a lot of brands work within a budget. We get the materials and we don’t have a lot of alternatives. We don’t have a lot of sustainable material alternatives to those synthetic fabrics. So at that point, I don’t have a lot of choices. That’s why it’s very hard for me to source sustainable materials in general.

When I worked with brands and designers, I developed a passion for materials. I think material is the fundamental starting point of the product, yet not a lot of people fall into textile design.

What is the mission of Tomtex?

At Tômtex, our mission is to create the next gen bio materials that can be accessible, practical and sustainable alternative to commercialized fossil fuel-derived materials.

What can you tell me about the chitosan used in Tômtex materials?

Chitosan is the second most abundant biopolymer on Earth, just behind cellulose. It has a lot of different great characteristics, and is antimicrobial, biodegradable and biocompostable.

We are using shell waste—seashell waste, lobster waste, crab waste, crab shell waste, and mushroom—to obtain chitosan. And we use that chitosan to mix with other biopolymer or green substances in a strong crosslinking process to produce the materials. 

At this stage, we start with leather first. So our material has the performance of leather, and it can be applied into different industries.

How do you create enough material to disrupt the fashion industry?

The biggest question is ‘how do you scale up your technology?’ And I believe that sustainability requires technology that can scale up, with the civilization, to meet the civilization where it’s at. 

So to answer that question about scalability, we at Tômtex, our technology is very easy to scale up because we use waste as our raw material. We use the existing equipment and factory again for our productions, so we don’t create the whole new system to create materials. 

So far, in our productions, we already create around 500 sheets of the materials with the lab-scale productions. In the future, it will be very easy for us to scale up with bigger facilities, better equipment, and even lower cost of the materials.

How do you believe material science can address the climate crisis?

Look around us, right—materials are the starting point of everything! And I believe that materials fundamentally have a great impact in our everyday life and our lifestyle. 

At Tômtex, we envision the world where people surround themselves with high performing materials, sourced directly from waste, not from fossil fuels.