Biochemist Thomas Scheibel

“I want my artificial spider silk to help people”

Thomas Scheibel has developed the world’s first competitive artificial spider silk. In order to be able to produce the super-fibre industrially he founded a start-up. His ground-breaking research has received numerous awards.

Even as a child Thomas Scheibel was fascinated by animals and nature. Because he was especially interested in research at the interface of biology and chemistry he studied Biochemistry in Regensburg, where he also did his PhD. When his doctoral supervisor Johannes Buchner took over the Chair of Biotechnology at TUM he brought Thomas Scheibel back to Germany from the USA for a habilitation. Imitating natural phenomena and developing them for commercial applications became his main interests. Up until today these research areas of Biomimetics and Bionics still captivate him.

Thomas Scheibel vividly remembers the time at TUM and his long-time mentor, who frequently put aside his own interests in favour of his pupils’. He gave him creative freedom and encouraged him to always think outside the box and try even the craziest ideas. What Thomas Scheibel also found exceptional was the interdisciplinary cooperation of biologists, chemists, biochemists and engineers offered at TUM campus Garching. “At TUM I was able to conduct highly interdisciplinary research while drawing on excellent technological equipment.”

Spider silk without spiders

During his time at TUM Thomas Scheibel contributed to nine issued patents. Always at the core was his interest in developing biomaterials, which serve a useful purpose for humanity. One of the most exciting materials of the future being used today is certainly the artificial spider silk he developed. In 2004 he made a scientific breakthrough when he managed to get genetically modify E. coli bacteria to produce spider silk proteins. A technical process turns them into artificial silk fibres.

At TUM it was possible to conduct research in an ideal way.

In order to bring the protein’s biotechnological production into large-scale manufacturing Thomas Scheibel founded his own start-up in 2008 together with a colleague and with TUM as a shareholder. “The fact that TUM holds shares of our company is indeed unusual. At other universities this surely would not have been as easy”, Thomas Scheibel says. Since then, the spin-off successfully translates academic research into globally marketable products. The extremely robust, light, waterproof and nearly invisible biotech spider silk materials are used in medical implants, sports shoes or breathable nail varnish. To secure the artificially produced raw material’s supply, research in how to make the production process even more efficient has been conducted at the TUM Pilot Plant of the Research Centre for Industrial Biotechnology.

Division of labour, team work and trust

Thomas Scheibel himself never held an operative role in the company. Instead he stuck to his area of expertise: “I tinkered around and developed and picked those university projects that were promising – and which the others, such as the management and industry experts, where then able to further develop for commercial production. This fundamental division of labour was one of the crucial decisions during the company’s establishment and has been very good for its development.”

He also advises young entrepreneurs to adopt such a division of labour and team work based  business model, with mutual trust and good human relations as further essential elements. “The best idea” the protein chemist says, “is useless without a good team, in which each member takes the company forward with their expertise.”

Today Thomas Scheibel is trying to pass on to the young researches at the University of Bayreuth what he has learnt from his mentor Johannes Buchner at TUM and from the establishment of the spin-off. Currently one of his doctoral students is located in the Columbian rain forest. So far she was able to discover 26 still unexplored spider species. Who knows, which useful materials these animals will lead Thomas Scheibel to. If none, it will be the mussels he is doing research on now. “I don’t have to do just silk”, he says with a smirk, “mussels produce super interesting glues. That’s also exciting.”