Workshop: Thinking About Sustainability

May 1, 2024

One of the most over-used, and under-defined words in conversations about the challenges generated by climate change is undoubtedly “sustainability.” That’s not new; in 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” which could mean almost anything, but probably means nothing. Nonetheless, sustainability remains the holy grail for countries, companies, and an endless line of NGO’s and they slap the word of products and processes with great abandon.

Fiorenzo Omenetto, founder of SilkLab, has a better idea. How about taking something that is created by nature—silk—and transforming it into products that can transform how medicines are delivered, how cancers are detected, how food can be made to last longer. Indeed, Fio is focused on pragmatics, not the shrill rhetoric that typically accompanies sustainability gurus: his lab is in the business of using nature to make a better world—leveraging nature to solve the problems that mankind has created.

The workshop took place on April 30-May 1 in Medford, MA and explored how to make sustainability sustainable, i.e., how to transform SilkLab from an amazing creator and incubator to an institution with the resources to transform the planet.


Silklab is reimagining natural materials for advanced technology, global health, and our planet’s future. Biomaterials fill the gap between nature and technology turning materials into “living materials.

Structural proteins are nature’s building blocks, conferring stiffness, structure, and function to ordinarily soft biological materials. Such proteins are polymorphic which allows us to control the end material format through self-assembly. These biomaterials provide a unique opportunity by being simultaneously “technological” (e.g. mechanically robust, micro- and nanostructured, high-performing) and “biological” (e.g. living, adaptable, bio-functional) making them ideally suited for applications at the interface between these two domains. The goal is to provide innovation for new advanced material processing and manufacturing based on sustainable carbon-neutral technologies, and imagine a new class of applications for living materials that operate seamlessly at the interface between the biological and technological worlds.

Fiorenzo G. Omenetto
PI and Director, Convergence of Photonics, Electronics, and Biomaterials, Silklab

Fio is the Frank C. Doble Professor of Engineering, and a Special Advisor to the Provost. He is a Professor in the Biomedical Engineering Department and also holds appointments in the Department of Physics and the Department of Electrical Engineering. His research interests are in the convergence of technology, biologically inspired materials, and the natural sciences with an emphasis on new transformative approaches for sustainable materials for high-technology applications. He has proposed and pioneered the use of silk as a material platform for advanced technology with uses in photonics, optoelectronics, and nanotechnology applications, is co-inventor on several disclosures on the subject. He has co-founded three companies. Prof. Omenetto was formerly a J. Robert Oppenheimer Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratories, a Guggenheim Fellow, a Tällberg Foundation Fellow, and is a Fellow of Optica (formerly Optical Society of America), the National Academy of Inventors, and of the American Physical Society. His research has been featured extensively in the press with coverage in the most important media outlets worldwide.

His research interests are at the interface of technology, biologically inspired materials and the natural sciences with an emphasis on new transformative approaches for sustainable materials for high-technology applications. He has proposed and pioneered the use of silk as a sustainable material platform for advanced technology and design applications and his research has been featured in the most important media outlets worldwide.

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