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This startup is tracking microbes to figure out where your shoes were really made

Because a microbiome can serve as a unique identifier of a place, Phylagen is gathering data from global factories so brands can better understand where their products are made, and detect if the work is being outsourced to places that rely on slavery or child labor.

This startup is tracking microbes to figure out where your shoes were really made
[Image: Phylagen]

Consider a pair of shoes that you might buy from a store at a mall. To get to where they are, in front of you, they have to be designed by a brand and manufactured in a factory. Given that 98% of shoes bought in the U.S. are made elsewhere, they then have to be shipped overseas and distributed to the shop where you found them.

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Along each stage of this supply chain, the shoe picks up a trace of where it’s been. Every physical environment on the planet has a unique microbiome–a collection of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microorganisms undetectable to the human eye–that leaves an imprint on every person or thing that passes through it. What if this unique microbial “barcode” found on every product could help brands thoroughly trace and verify its place of origin?

That is foundational question the San Francisco-based startup Phylagen is trying to answer. It’s a compelling proposition: Supply chain transparency is one of the biggest challenges for brands trying to ensure that their products are ethically made. This is especially crucial for brands that rely on labor overseas. Companies contract with manufacturers in countries like China and India, and pay them to make their products. But those manufacturers often subcontract work out to other facilities that underpay workers and often rely on forced or child labor. These often-hidden layers in supply chains make it very difficult to detect exactly where and how a product originates.

Phylagen, says cofounder Jessica Green (who previously founded the Biology and Built Environment Center at the University of Oregon), wants to make those layers more visible. The name Phylogen is a play on “phylogeny,” a word that denotes the evolutionary relationships between species and organisms. Gathering insights around the most specific layers of those relationships is Phylagen’s mission. “The Earth’s microbiomes are the world’s largest untapped data set,” says Green, who spent her academic career analyzing the unique combinations of microorganisms that collect in every environment, from oceans to buildings, on the planet. “We could solve problems on the ground at a massive scale if we could translate the global microbiomes into a digital database that could be used by brands and governments and consumers,” she says.

Green and her cofounder Harrison Dillon, along with Phylagen’s small team, are at work doing just that, focusing first on manufacturing facilities. “There have been real pain points around manufacturing environments identified by brands,” Green says.

But it’s an understatement to say that collecting, analyzing, and digitally cataloging the genome of the microbial dust in every factory in the world is a huge endeavor. Phylagen works with a channel partner (a company that liaises between brands and manufacturers) that already has a presence in global factories; they’ve trained reps from the channel partner in how to collect dust samples from a variety of surfaces in the factory environment. They ship those samples to Phylagen, which sequences and catalogs them. “It’s a very quick and scalable process,” Green says.

The first product that Phylagen has made available to brands is a microbial forensics test. “They can pull goods from the shelf in the distribution center, then take a sample of the microbes on a pair of shoes or a T-shirt using this test kit and verify, by looking at the microbial barcode, whether or not that object was actually manufactured in the place by the supplier that the brand paid,” Green says. Because a product will come into contact with a number of different microbiomes on its journey to a distribution center, Phylagen has developed algorithms that it says will capture the specific microbes that are most indicative of the various places of origin on its data platform. “We’ve developed methods to scan through all that genetic material and pull out that which is most informative for traceability,” Green says.

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While Phylagen is not releasing the names of brands it’s working with at the moment, Green says that several large North American companies who were previously confident in the origin of their products have since learned that they were made in subcontracting facilities. “We’ve been told by brands that up to a third of products they sell come from unauthorized subcontracting,” Green says. This data can equip brands with the information they need to take action, either by switching suppliers or working more closely with their manufacturing partners to ensure ethical practices.

It’s still fairly new technology, but Phylagen, founded in 2014, is growing fast. It just raised $14 million in Series A funding from Cultivian Sandbox, Breakout Ventures, and Working Capital, and continues to bring more brands and factories onto its platform. Green also sees potential for working with more agricultural companies, for whom insights into the origin, quality, and distribution path of their products is crucial. And she intends to work closely with NGOs involved in the effort to end forced labor and child slavery. “The goal is to reduce the amount of unauthorized subcontracting, because that is highly correlated with environments where forced labor happens,” Green says, and she’s hopeful that Phylagen’s data will provide much-needed transparency into supply chains where unethical labor is still prevalent.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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