Tennessee natural dye startup bets on indigo

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In Tennessee, Stony Creek Colors is working to improve the economics of producing the natural dye indigo in an effort to provide textile makers with a sustainable alternative to synthetics.

Though cheaper, synthetic indigo is made from toxic chemicals like formaldehyde and cyanide. “That is a big challenge for bio-based dyes,” but the “toxicity of chemicals in synthetic indigo is really staggering,” Stony Creek Colors founder Sarah Bellos tells Forbes. “Once people hear that they might be wearing organic cotton blue jeans, but the dye is made from cyanide and no longer made in the United States because it is so hazardous they will recognize the importance of natural alternatives.”

The Goodlettsville start-up has less than $1 million in revenue and just 16 employees, but is raising venture capital funds to scale operations. It has also been working to improve the economics of indigo, which did modernize along with other crops. “We had to figure out how to improve the yield of the plants, how to improve the plant genetics through modern plant breeding, and how to improve the extraction method,” Bellos says. “We didn’t come out of the gate saying we’ll be focused on indigo. It took a lot of time exploring other plants. Farmers want to grow alternative crops if there is a compelling market and customers want to buy it.”