The Interview: Leila and Neeka Mashouf, Co-Founders of Rubi Laboratories
Twins Leila and Neeka Mashouf are the co-founders of Rubi Laboratories, a biotechnology company that aims to revolutionise sustainable textiles in the fashion industry.
In February 2022, the company raised £3.3 million in funding to develop a technology that transforms CO2 into fibres that mimic Viscose, an innovation for which it recently won this year’s prestigious H&M Global Change Award.
H&M is not the only brand that has recognised its potential, with Ganni's founder Nicolaj Reffstrup and founder of thredUp, James Reinhart, both joining the funding round as angel investors.
The 25-year-olds look back on extraordinary careers in the science and technology sectors and together they are combining their expertise in biology, material science and business to create and commercialise their invention.
Neeka left her Silicon Valley job as a Product Engineer to create the company and be its CEO, with her sister Leila joining soon after as Chief Technology Officer, pausing her medical degree at Harvard University.
We sit down with the twins to discuss their plans to re-invent fashion supply-chains to be planet positive, how they went from selling lemonades to building their multi-million business, and their thriving TikTok channel.
You're both scientists! How did that passion of yours start?
Neeka: It did start really early. Initially, I think we've always been really inspired by our family. We have a bunch of uncles and aunts who are scientists, or business owners in retail, or work in chemical engineering and other scientific fields.
And then we also grew up in Northern California, surrounded by nature. And one of our uncles once asked us, where do trees come from? And this was one of the classic science quizzes he would always do at the breakfast table with us. And I remember, it was just such an inspiring moment.
And what about your scientific careers, when did those actually start?
Neeka: Early on we both started working in different science research labs, myself more in materials and sustainability, starting in artificial photosynthesis in the San Francisco Bay Area, at like 15 years old. Then I worked for 10 years across different research initiatives in solar energy, wind, energy storage - a bunch of different frontier tech that was leading the charge in sustainability. Then I studied materials engineering and business at Berkeley, absolutely loved the whole materials world. I was a product manager for a few years at tech companies and then came back to my true passion, which is invention, and innovating new technologies and bringing them to reality.
Leila: I also started when I was about 15. And I got really interested in biological science and understanding biological systems, how you could apply that understanding to innovate new therapeutics for different kinds of diseases. So, I was really focused on the medical bioengineering field - working on cancer and therapeutics. And that took me to Hopkins, where I studied pre-med and neuroscience.
And then I was most recently a medical student at Harvard. And when I was there, I was really reflecting on this background that Neeka shared, and what I felt like my life's purpose is. It felt like I really needed to apply this background in bio engineering to a brand-new frontier where it could be applied to actually help save the planet.
What is it like to work as sisters?
Neeka: Growing up as twins we'd always do things together and we'd always have businesses together. I mean, from starting with the typical lemonade stand at our house, and we'd also have our pet turtle that people could like pet.
Then we had a handmade jewellery business in middle school and we sold internationally. And that was something we loved and we wanted to do it together, because we're always inspired by similar things. We knew that when we grew up, we would work together eventually, we just didn't know what.
Laila, can you explain to me a bit about what your roles are at the company? And how do your responsibilities come together?
Leila: So, I'm the CTO I oversee the development of the technology, so really just overseeing the roadmap for many years out of how we're going to get to samples very shortly and then also like scaling up to being able to provide textiles for the whole industry, in a very rapid timeframe. So definitely a lot of project management and then also when I first joined last summer, I really led the actual prototyping of the technology. So just in the lab myself pipetting, and doing all of the actual science R&D to prove that the technology worked for this application.
That makes you, the CEO Neeka, right?
Neeka: Yes, I'm the CEO. I've been building the company since August 2020, that’s when I incorporated as an LLC, but I still had a full-time job. So, I guess my role really is laser focused on product market fit. So really understanding our customers, these big tier-one brands and what they need and how we can really create a definitive solution for them that will be easily adopted in the industry.
It's quite amazing actually that you founded Rubi in August 2020, which was in the middle of a global pandemic. How difficult was that for you?
Neeka: One thing I was always inspired by, I think it was Isaac Newton, he discovered calculus during the Spanish Influenza. It was like these pandemics, where people are quarantined, even throughout history they have been very pivotal and inspiring. I just realised that now's the time. And, you know, it took a while to build it on the side, I used my salary to fund all of our work and then finally was able to go full time.
I think that perfectly leads us on to what you are doing, which is creating a carbon negative textile. I really wonder why you wanted to start with cellulose fibres?
Neeka: Yeah, so we really started with the framing. We have a carbon emissions crisis globally, but the funny thing is the planet is built on carbon. All of our materials are carbon-based that come from nature, like things that come from trees and plants and everything like that. So that was the initial inspiration we took, how can we unlock CO2 as a new natural resource and make all these critical materials that we already rely on?
And we knew fashion was the perfect industry for these carbon negative materials right now. And then a few things went into us deciding the textile. One, we wanted to make sure our materials are planet positive. So biodegradable and doesn’t create further threat to habitats and ecosystems. So, we didn't want to do anything plastic based, even if it is a large percent of textiles now. And then we also wanted to target a major textile that people are really familiar with that's used in a lot of apparel.
And so cellulosics is the third most widely used material and can mimic cotton and other natural materials, depending on the post treatment. So, we saw this really big opportunity to tackle natural materials, but without the carbon, the water and the land that typically comes with it.
So, could you in really simple terms walk me through the technology? How does it work?
Leila: Take CO2, that's the input. And then the output is the cellulose. Like Neeka mentioned, that's what we're taking and turning into all the wonderful fabrics that we know and love. And the process in between is a chain reaction, basically. But we use biological catalysts, so enzymes. And what those do is that every step, they modify the chain a little bit. It goes through different iterations than it builds up the big chain of cellulose.
So, we just kind of housed those enzymes that do this process in our reactor. And we can do that in an industrial scale, because we've found a way to immobilise them and stabilise them in a reactor that undergoes this process. So, you can think of it as kind of just a chain reaction.
You’ve developed your first prototype in February, I believe. What was that like to hold that in your hands, your very first finished creation?
Neeka: Yes. So right now, we've been making the cellulose material. And so, throughout these past few months we've been able to hold these cool sheets of cellulose pulp, but like solid material, which is pretty cool. It's like this jelly thing. And that's what then gets processed into yarn and textiles from there.
So right now, in the coming weeks, we're turning the cellulose into the yarns, the textiles and then testing with brands with those end product. So, we're not there quite yet. And we're excited to be able to prove it out fully, soon. But right now it has been very cool to see this main prototype, which is proving that we can make the same cellulose that's in the industry today but through our process.
I guess you may or may not be able to tell me about upcoming brand partners. But can you give me a benchmark?
Neeka: Definitely can't share too much yet. But we're working with some really inspiring tier-one fashion brands. They're household names and global brands, definitely more than a handful. And they all have really important sustainability missions that they take action on. And I would say they’ve been a leader in general for sustainable materials, and would be a great initial partner for us. So, we're excited to work with all these brands.
What I also wanted to ask you about is your TikTok, I saw it and it’s incredible to have a look behind the scenes. Can you tell me a bit about that? How did it start?
@rubi.earth any questions? 😛 #cellfree #biotech #carbonnegative #womeninstem #sustainablefashion #ceo #founder #startup #climate ♬ original sound - kennn 💝
Neeka: We’ve both been on TikTok for a while and were kind of amazed by the shift in culture that it’s creating. Plus, we saw the Gen Z people - we’re right on the edge but we like to say we’re Gen Z, the Gen Z audience is there and building community and being really authentic and sharing things they care about.
And so, we really wanted to be this directly connected, authentic brand, that people could relate to. Like we’re all part of this big environmental movement. As of now we don't really do it as an engagement strategy, it's still for fun, but we've seen such incredible engagement. People are interested in using our materials, joining the company, interning, all this cool stuff. So, we're really seeing the community respond well to what we're building and I think it's a perfect channel for us and the audience we're trying to engage with.
I love that. I think that’s a lovely way to end but before we go, I’d also like to ask you about the future of Rubi. You are also looking to expand beyond fashion, right?
Neeka: Yes. We really see ourselves as building the future of decarbonized supply chains and moving away from the detrimental supply chains we've had in the past to ones that can really be planet positive and symbiotic. So, we're starting with fashion but in the future, we can leverage this technology platform and make so many other materials like proteins, lipids, starches. And these are the building blocks of all the materials that come from Earth, like food, medicines, packaging, and so much more. And all these supply chains need to be reinvented - and we're excited to lead that charge.