Founder, Vienna Textile Lab

“If synthetic dyes originate from crude oil, does it make sense to be using them for a 5-euro T-shirt you throw out after six months? It just doesn’t compute.”

Karin Fleck, 36, has a PhD in chemistry from the Technical University of Vienna (TU), but until recently, never worked as a chemist. So what’s she doing at the TU chemical lab now, sitting a few seats from where she conducted experiments as a student?

“It’s a really cool sense of déjà vu to be back here after all these years,” she told us, drinking in the familiarity of the beakers and white lab coats.

Fleck returned to her alma mater after winning first place last year at the ClimateLaunchpad green business competition in Austria with her startup, Vienna Textile Lab. Fleck and her associates are developing a technique to use naturally occurring bacteria to create textile dyes.

According to the World Bank, a fifth of global industrial pollution is caused by the synthetic dyes used in the textile industry, normally made from crude oil.

The project has received strong support, both from the TU and from a dedicated team of students who share her vision.

“In the corporate world, you don’t get this sense of purpose, other than maybe for your next promotion,” Fleck said. “Now, I’m suddenly surrounded by people saying, ‘You can’t stop now, you have to keep going!’”

The main challenge for Fleck and her team is identifying which processes to patent and what their potential is for mass production. Factors include how quickly the bacterial strains can be grown, what materials they can be used for, how colorfast they are, and, of course, what actual colors they can create.

Bacterial strains come from soil, air and water. One strain the team is experimenting with comes from the Danube, although the color that results is pink, not blue.

“One was even found in church holy water – full of bacteria!” Fleck said delightedly.

Support just keeps coming: Her startup was recently admitted to Fashion for Good, an organization that opens doors for fashion-related startups, which has already put her in contact with clothing manufacturers Adidas and Zalando.

“I’m really impressed by their professionalism, they’re taking the issue of sustainability very seriously,” Fleck reported. “It’s not just a marketing gag.”