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Style, innovation & equality
Innovation

The world’s first microbe-grown headset showcases the possibilities of synthetic biology

Scientists and designer worked tight together in developing new, some never before used, materials in an actual product, aiming to get people interested in microbial materials.

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Words: Johan Magnusson

Finnish science journalist Nina Pulkkis is specialized in synthetic biology and biomaterials and has worked a lot with science communication. She was also part of the Korvaa project, which initially was a communications effort to showcase the possibilities of microbial materials. VTT and Aalto University were responsible for producing the materials, Aivan for industrial design and Fotoni Film for documenting and photographing the project. The project has received funding from the Academy of Finland's Centre of Excellence HYBER, Sitra, Synbio Powerhouse, VTT, the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation and the Sophie von Julin Foundation.

— In the beginning of the project I knew we should have professional designers involved. So I asked (design agency) Aivan to be a part of our team and create a beautiful design for the headphones. They have a huge portfolio and a house filled with talented industrial designers. We were very lucky to get them on board. The last partners, VTT, is the Technical Research Center in Finland and we collaborated with them and Aalto University to create the microbial materials used in the headphones.

Tell us about the product. What have you done? And why did you do it?

— Our aim was to get people interested in microbial materials, and also alleviate some of the misgivings people might have about using microbes or synthetic biology. In the project scientists and designer worked tight in developing new, some never before used, materials in an actual product. Many times great research stays in the lab and nobody hears about it. We decided to do it differently this time and actively reach out to people in exhibitions and media. The project finally reached over 370 million people all over the world, so I think our team did a really great job and succeeded beyond our expectations.

What were the biggest challenges?

— Some of the materials are on a very early stage in the research. This was a big challenge both for the scientists as well as the researcher. We had only a limited amount of time but a very ambitious target.

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You could imagine that it’s only a prototype. Or, will it come out for sale?

— Although I’m not a cynical person, I’d have to say no to this question, says Pulkkis. To make an actual product, with these materials and which could be mass-produced, would require years of material research. But, with other materials, combining plant based biomaterials, it would be completely possible to make.

Will you move on with other projects?

— Our team is now considering to build a start up specialized in microbial, sustainable materials — we’ll see how it goes.