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Why Black Widow's powers could be real : Bulletproof skin and spider webs

Meet Jalila Essaïdi from Brainport Eindhoven who makes superheroes come to life her work. "Nurture creative talent and crossover innovation, always with an eye on nature,” she said. A tour of the lab, run as a nonprofit, underscores how Essaïdi has been able to energetically combine her background in art and arts education with a passion for science and technology.

The first thing visitors see is a display of containers holding manure, extracted fibers and the sustainable bioplastic, biopaper and biotextiles created from it for Essaïdi’s latest project, Mestic®. Not only does it transform animal waste into useable, organic products, it helps solve the problem of surplus manure.

To promote Mestic, which Essaïdi oversees through her commercial company, Inspidere BV, she and her team, with support from the municipality of Eindhoven, staged a lively fashion show in 2016 that featured Mestic-derived fabrics. The public announcement drew media attention from around the globe.

At the lab, around the corner from the bioplastic display are a couple of ant farms, used as part of the growing educational programs BioArt is involved with through local schools. Nearby is part of a tree trunk employed for “Living Network,” where Essaïdi tapped into existing experiments to use living trees as antennas, their life-giving properties acting as antennae to transmit and receive radio signals.

On another side of the room is a small enclosed area holding golden orb weavers, spiders that are known for spinning amazing webs.

“Look at those webs, so intricate,” she said, pointing to a complex design spun among branches. “Those threads have so many implications for burns and wounds.”

Essaïdi has more than a passing interest in spiders. Her project known as “Bulletproof Skin” used bioengineered bulletproof human skin reinforced with synthetic spider silk to explore issues of safety. Now she’s hoping to apply what started mostly as an art and science experiment into an application for burn and wound patients, a project that also falls under her Inspidere. She thinks it could take at least a decade to bring something like that to market.

While Essaïdi has her hands in many things here, she’s not the only one tinkering. At the time of the tour, young researchers there on three-month residencies the BioLab offers were preparing their installations for the upcoming Dutch Design Week. Collectively titled “The Essence of Things,” their experiments examined the properties of phenomenon as far-reaching as sound and rain.

“One of the great things about our lab not being in a university setting is that we give people room to experiment and also to fail,” Essaïdi said. “You need room to fail without having to make a publication or find the funding for each project.”

The lab hosts local researchers as well, especially from Design Academy Eindhoven and Eindhoven Technical University, who come to use the BioLab’s Material Bank, whose inventory might include light-giving bacteria, silk worms, slime worms, gecko glue and other materials and applications created there.

“We have all kinds of organisms you can work with,” says Essaïdi, whose eyes light up at the list of offerings. Living things have always interested Essaïdi, who grew up in nearby Veldhoven.

“When I was young, I used to collect plants and sick animals, like little birds and rabbits.”

She spent days playing outside, and when she played inside with toys, she would take them apart.

“I always wanted to see how things worked.”

Her entrepreneurial side kicked in at age 18, when she opened her own tattoo shop.

“I liked skin and art, so it seemed like a good combination,” she said. “But after a few years, it started to bore me.”

From there Essaïdi went to art school, earning a Bachelor’s degree at Fontys Hogescholen in 2009, then a Master’s in arts education at Alliantie Kunsten Fontys Zuyd in Tilburg, in 2011. She also studied Bioart at the University of Leiden from 2008 to 2010. While in Leiden, Essaïdi was a recipient of the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award for her “Bulletproof” project, winning a prize of €25,000. She has since gone on to help run the award, renamed BAD, or the Bio-Art & Design Award. Winners for the competition for young artists and designers are now feted at MU, an experimental art space in Eindhoven’s Strijp S.

Though the city of Eindhoven has provided space for BioArt Laboratories, Essaïdi said she has self-funded many of the operations from money she’s earned from speaking fees, though outside funding is beginning to increase. The dozen or so workers at the lab are volunteers. She also regularly collaborates with researchers, biologists, farmers, and entrepreneurs, to name a few, and says that the business and development climate in Eindhoven is offers prime opportunities for networking. The lab also invites the public there during a series of free presentations on varying topics.

One of Essaïdi’s major goals is to get Mestic up and running.

“I’m working with all the stakeholders on a joint venture, and the business plan being finished,” she said. “In two years, we hope to have our first demo factory up and running. It’s very important that it be in Brabant, in this high tech Brainport Region. We have a lot of makers in the area, but they mostly work with materials that come from outside the Netherlands. We want to show people that’s not always necessary.”

Written by Communications team © Brainport Development

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