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Jalila Essaïdi reached the world press with a so-called bulletproof skin, a project that is being continued as a medical application. With another concept, textile based on manure, she is currently also attracting attention. ‘I am all for action; there are more than enough talking shops in the Netherlands.’
Lucien Joppen

Jalila is an exponent of BioArt, an art movement in which artists and/or enthusiastic ‘amateur biotechnologists’, as she calls them, work with organisms. The term BioArt was first used by Eduardo Kac in 1997 in his artwork Time Capsule. BioArtists usually work with organisms on a cellular level, such as human cell material or organic materials such as manure. The transformation of nature by human hands is a key theme in BioArt. The artists do not so much take up a position as confront people with the manipulability of nature. Apart from making a statement, Jalila, who graduated from Fontys Hogeschool in Tilburg in Art, also wants to make business from BioArt.

Jalila, what attracts you in nature and, more specifically, in the influence of technology on nature?
‘As a child I already had a tendency to bring little creatures and plants home with me and dissect them. I have always retained this fascination for nature. While I was studying I came into contact with BioArt. That idea appealed to me and still does. Biotechnology’s role in and influence on our society, and on nature, is already large and will only grow in the coming decades. Take genetic modification of crops or the development of medicines and medical applications, such as cultivating animal cells for human applications.’

Genetic modification, cell cultures. Is BioArt welcomed with open arms?

‘There is criticism against BioArt, from PETA (editor’s note: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), for instance, because of the use of transgenic organisms. This involves putting a foreign gene in an animal’s DNA – it can happen naturally but also in the laboratory – so that they obtain certain properties and can also pass them on. The textbook example from science is Herman the bull. His female offspring produce certain medicinal proteins in their milk. Genetic modification is already used on a large scale in crops such as wheat. I know that in Europe we are not that keen on these technologies, but the fact is that they are out there and we need to do something with them. The point is that science goes immeasurably faster than the public debate and political decision-making. So we will have to discuss the pros and cons of biotechnology, with artists playing a catalyst role. Personally, I see myself as unbiased. I am not affiliated with particular organisations or companies.’

But you are involved in a few business projects that were your own idea, aren’t you?

‘That is right. I have a few patents on the project of the human bulletproof skin and I’ve set up a separate company, Inspidere, for activities based on the principle underlying the skin. I was pointed in the right direction for that idea by Randy Lewis, who has bred transgenic goats so that they produce specific proteins in their milk. These proteins in turn form the basis for spider silk. That brings this material within the reach of industrial applications. Spider silk, the threads of the spider web, is an enormously strong and tough material. It is five times stronger than steel and three times tougher than Kevlar, a material that forms the basis for bulletproof vests. The production process for spider silk does not harm nature and no chemicals are released, as opposed to the production of the above inorganic materials. The only ‘but’ is that the ‘spider production process’ cannot be scaled up. Spiders are territorial and cannibalistic, and, moreover, they only produce minor quantities. Enough for a web, but not enough for an industrial or semi-industrial application.’

In the meantime you have developed a prototype for a bulletproof skin, together with a number of parties, including the University of Utah and the Netherlands Forensic Institute. How did you get these parties to go along with you?

‘Simply by picking up the telephone and convincing the right people of my idea. And don’t forget the preparation. I had read up in depth beforehand in many fields of expertise. Not to specialise in a particular domain, but to get a hang of the jargon. It is important for all parties to speak the same language. In the end we managed to reinforce a part of a human skin (editor’s note: originating from cosmetic surgery) with “armour plating” of spider silk so that it could receive a .22LR bullet fired at a relatively slow speed. For that matter, it was not my objective to create a skin that would be real armour in the long term. It is more that I wanted to show how far we have to go to believe we are safe. Over the years we have taken all kinds of safety measures to protect ourselves from all kinds of things, but the feeling of not being safe continues to gnaw at us.’

Not real skin then, but a prospect of other applications?

‘Definitely. Right now we are working on variations that might be able to serve as “living plasters” for burns and/or bedsores. The American army also showed some interest. I organised a public debate on the question of whether it should get a military application. The consensus was that it was better to take the medical path. To be honest, if I had been business-like, I would have sold the patent. It takes at least 10 years to get a medical application on the market, with in-vitro testing, animal testing and human testing. And then you have to see whether it really works and whether it is permitted by the authorities.’

It looks like another project, Mestic, will be on the market faster. How did this idea come about?

‘It came to me during a visit to the provincial hall in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where the manure problem was on the agenda. The solutions were also reviewed, and it was noticeable that they were mainly energy applications. This triggered me to investigate whether “we” could use manure as raw material for high-grade materials. In this case, too, it was a matter of approaching the right parties, talking with dairy farmers, the sector, that is, ZLTO, and other relevant partners. It started with an inventory of what cow manure contains and then seeing whether these components could be processed into specific materials. Different applications emerged, including vanilla. We would get problems with that under the Dutch Commodities Act, which is why non-food applications were the most obvious. Now the fixed fraction of cow manure is rich in cellulose, a raw material that can be converted into cellulose acetate via the Mestic method (editor’s note: designed by Jalila, patent pending). With respect to this method: a chemical step on the farmer’s property already affects the composition of the various fractions. This is followed by a mechanical and chemical separation, after which the cellulose is pulped to “dissolving grade pulp”. Various roads lead to Rome from here: paper, regenerated cellulose (fibres) or acetylation into cellulose acetate. Threads can be spun from cellulose acetate (and from dissolving cellulose), twined and woven into textile. With this material, called Mestic, a dress has been designed, among other items. This collection is now on a world tour of museums and suchlike.’

What are the critical success factors of Mestic? Can it compete with synthetic varieties like nylon or polyester?

‘We still have to overcome a number of obstacles that are certainly not insurmountable. One of them is the quality of the raw material: the cellulose content is determined to a large extent by the feeding regime. Farmers will therefore have to make a change. This results in lower milk production, but it does create milk with a higher protein content. Difficult, you might think. But they earn money for that through the cellulose from the cow poo. Something they previously had to pay for themselves. As far as supply is concerned, pure volume, there are no problems I can foresee. We are now going to scale up the processing – the process from manure to textile – in a factory that can process 100,000 m3 of manure a year. I am currently talking with a number of investors. ZLTO also sees opportunities in Mestic. And as far as the market is concerned: yes, there are alternatives to Mestic and there are also other raw materials (pulp, wood, etc), that can form the basis for the production of cellulose acetate. The point is that we do need to find a solution for the manure and that Mestic can be part of a solution. Of course, price-wise it will have to be able to compete with current materials. This will only be possible if we scale up to larger volumes.’

Jalila Essaïdi (1980) studied Art and Art History in Tilburg, after which she studied BioArt at the University of Leiden. Essaïdi works as an artist, entrepreneur and facilitator for other artists and designers. To that aim she set up Stichting BioArt Laboratories on Strijp S in Eindhoven. Other artists and/or students can work out their BioArt concepts in depth at the former Philips site. Of course they can make use of the facilities (laboratories, etc) and of the network and business network of BioArt Laboratories.