Innovation of the Year
Photosynthesis is perhaps the most powerful “manufacturing technology” known to humanity—an inexpensive, pervasive and entirely renewable process with zero waste. In this age of synthetic plastics and petroleum-based fossil fuels, what if we could harness nature’s powers to efficiently mold and shape abundant natural materials such as cotton, hemp and cork? And what if these materials could bring the same performance benefits to your everyday life as plastics, without pollution or waste? This utopian future is currently being built… right here in Peoria.
The story of Natural Fiber Welding (NFW) begins about a decade ago, when a chemistry professor at the U.S. Naval Academy made several key discoveries, including the ability to manipulate natural fiber structures at near-atomic precision. In the fall of 2013, Dr. Luke Haverhals joined the chemistry department at Bradley University and brought these discoveries with him. He founded NFW in 2015 with a groundbreaking proposition: to develop and bring to market natural composite materials that outperform synthetic plastics—the success of which could revolutionize a number of multi-billion-dollar industries.
With assistance from the Turner Center for Entrepreneurship and an early investment from Attollo, the emerging startup took up residence at the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center and hired its first employees. As Haverhals built out his business plan and raised additional capital, Attollo’s Steve Zika and the Turner Center’s Chad Stamper joined the NFW team, so convinced they were of its transformative potential. Soon the company expanded to a larger facility on Galena Road, while the addition of Aaron Amstutz, chief technology officer, in 2017 brought a wealth of expertise to the firm, allowing it to not only fulfill, but extend its “Plants, Not Plastic” mission.
NFW’s first two patented platform brands will soon be found in handbags, apparel, footwear and even automobiles. Its Clarus™ technology revitalizes recycled cotton fibers into high-performance textiles by “welding” them together at the molecular level, while Mirum™ acts as a plant-based leather, with endless possibilities for customization. NFW’s current team of nearly 50 employees is now deeply engaged in scaling the production of these materials for sale to customers around the world.
And the world is taking notice. Leading fashion designers have long championed the goal of plant-based leather; a June 2019 article in Vogue Business calls Mirum “the newest and most exciting entrant to the field.” Earlier this year, NFW’s pilot project with Porsche garnered international attention for incorporating a vegan leather interior into its new electric car. Meanwhile, Fast Company selected NFW’s vegan leather as an honorable mention in its 2020 World-Changing Ideas Awards.
Just last month, NFW received its biggest boost yet when the Ralph Lauren Corporation led a new round of investment, taking a minority stake in the company as part of its sustainability strategy. “We are excited to support the work of NFW, a pioneer in this field,” said David Lauren, vice chairman and chief innovation officer at Ralph Lauren. “Their technology has the power to not only advance our work… but affect positive change across the entire industry.” Joining Ralph Lauren in this round was the angel investor network Central Illinois Angels, institutional investor Prairie Crest Capital, and a number of prominent Peoria-based business and investment leaders—bringing the total funds raised by NFW to over $25 million to date.
As it expands its Peoria production facility and scales up commercial manufacturing, the company expects to hire around 100 people over the next year. They will be engaged in solving some of the world’s most pressing global problems, notes Steve Zika, chief operating officer. “We come to work every day knowing that what we’re making here is empowering leading brands around the world to make a real difference in people’s lives.”
In the coming decades, Natural Fiber Welding stands poised to transform a diverse range of industries by sourcing raw materials from nature, rather than using finite fossil resources. As the company is successful, humanity will be able to live more abundantly and with a lower impact on the environment—fulfilling Haverhals’ founding vision.
“From the first breakthrough in the lab to our latest formulations for customers, we’ve been able to expand the perception of what nature and regenerative agriculture can do,” Haverhals explains. “With the support of these investors and partners like Ralph Lauren, it’s time to show the marketplace the potential for a future that does not force consumers and brands to choose between costs, performance and sustainability.” naturalfiberwelding.com PM