Meet the science entrepreneur turning the textiles industry green

Orr Yarkoni is CEO of Colorifix at Norwich Research Park

Orr Yarkoni is CEO of Colorifix at Norwich Research Park - Credit: Colorifix

Colorifix is a biotechnology company based at Norwich Research Park developing a sustainable method of dyeing fabrics that could drastically reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry. CEO Orr Yarkoni explains how his work is turning textiles green.

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

Stella McCartney organic summer dress dyed using the Colorifix process

In 2018, Stella McCartney featured an organic summer dress in her collection that was dyed using the Colorifix process - Credit: Presstigieux

What does Colorifix do?

We use synthetic biology to engineer micro-organisms so that they can produce, deposit and fix dyes directly onto textiles. It is a more sustainable dyeing process that reduces water and energy consumption, while completely removing the use of petro and toxic chemicals.

Colorifix was born out of a passion for water quality. In 2012, I joined co-founder Jim Ajioka’s lab at the University of Cambridge to research arsenic contamination in Nepal. We developed a sensor of micro-organisms that would change colour if the water was unsafe to drink. We asked members of the public about how chemicals in the water bothered them. That's when we were exposed to the impact of the textile industry and how many of the pollutants come from colouring fabrics.

We thought: if we could have micro-organisms that change colour, wouldn’t it be great if we can get them to change the colour of clothing? Instead of monitoring the problem, it could be part of the solution. We’ve taken that concept and applied it in an industrial context.

Why is the work you are doing so important?

The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters on the planet. It produces more than 100 billion articles of clothing every year and the dyeing step alone uses about five trillion litres of water, with an estimated 200,000 tonnes of dye (and other harmful substances) lost to rivers and streams every year. 

The real advantage of synthetic biology is that it works across different materials. We can dye polyester, nylon and cotton. We can also apply it throughout different stages of production from yarn to fabric to garment. Colorifix can save around 49% of the water used in the dyeing process for cotton. Our technology can also reduce energy consumption by 35% and carbon dioxide by 31%, while minimising the carbon footprint of the supply chain.

Our impact could be very substantial. I couldn't put a figure on it because the numbers are so big, they're beyond comprehension. Can anyone comprehend what five trillion litres of water looks like? But we hope to make a big contribution to reduce the environmental impact of the textiles industry.

In 2021, Colorifix partnered with H&M to create a range of products dyed sustainably

In 2021, Colorifix partnered with H&M to create a range of products dyed sustainably - Credit: H&M

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What fashion companies have you partnered with?

The first product we ever made was a dress for Stella McCartney. It was a great opportunity to test how well we could perform and the dress was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum to show what the future of fashion could look like. We launched our first product with H&M early in 2021 and a capsule collection with Pangaia towards the end of last year.

Colorifix is currently completing a Series B funding round that we will use to accelerate our growth and hire a lot more people this year.

Why did you decide to pursue science as a career?

My parents always encouraged me to enjoy nature: how clever it is and what it does. From an early age I was passionate about learning how nature passes on information and shapes the world around us, which led me to genetics and molecular biology.

By understanding how nature works, we can interact with it in a better way. I later learned how important it was to apply engineering principles and the rules of design to nature. Synthetic biology was the most effective way to achieve this.

How did you end up working in Norwich?

I grew up in Portugal and moved to the UK when I was 18. I studied at Newcastle University and did a Master's in nano fabrication before a PhD in biosensors. I completed my post doctorate at the University of Cambridge, which is where I met Jim Ajioka. We won the Andam Innovation Prize and Biostart which afforded us a down payment on a laboratory space.

The lab configuration at the Innovation Centre on Norwich Research Park attracted us and we joined in 2018. Our research and development is done here in Norwich and we finalise our recipes at our site in Cambridge, where we have a dye house with large-scale fermenters.

What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?

Norwich Research Park is a great environment with a welcoming atmosphere. The space here is phenomenal. It gives us different lab configurations, which are essential because we do different things – from dyeing to analytics to fermentation.

The university is leading in areas that matter to us. There are great institutes for us to work with and recruit from. We work with researchers at the Earlham Institute to improve production, so we can make darker colours and more pigments. It’s a world-class facility – there’s nothing lacking.

What do you get up to when you are not working?

I spend time with my kids – my family is a big part of my life. I love to read, meet people and learn new things.

One of my best friends from university got me into scuba diving. I visit him in the Cayman Islands whenever I can. I’m partway through my rescue diver course but unfortunately picking it up again might take a little while!

Orr Yarkoni is CEO of Colorifix on Norwich Research Park. You can follow him on Twitter @OrrYarkoni