Luke Haverhals wants to change the way yoga pants are made. Most performance fabrics used in sportswear, like spandex, are made from man-made fibers, mostly plastic. These plastics are problematic for humans and the environment. Haverhals’ company, Natural Fiber Welding, offers an alternative to synthetic fabrics.
NFW manufactures a performance cotton textile called Clarus which can be used for clothing. The fabric is made from cotton which has been treated to partially break down organic matter and make it stronger and denser. The result is a cotton yarn that behaves more like synthetic fibers.
When asked if his business is a tech company or a textile company, Haverhals responds without hesitation. “We are a technology company… but our first objective is textiles. “
Haverhals holds a doctorate in chemistry and began his career teaching at the Naval Academy in 2008. There he worked with a team of chemists and materials scientists in search of ionic liquids, which are mainly molten salts. These salts generally remain liquid at room temperature and can be used as solvents to break down biomass, such as cotton and cellulose. In 2009, with funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the team made a significant breakthrough in strengthening natural fibers using ionic liquids.
The team asked what might happen if they partially break down natural fibers and then solder or fuse them together. The result is a kind of monofilament cotton. While the original fibers may be only a few inches long, the partially dissolved and fused fibers can be much longer. This creates a stronger yarn that mimics the performance characteristics of synthetic fibers.
In 2016, Haverhals left the Naval Academy and founded NFW with a grant from the Department of Defense and a license from the Air Force to produce yarns and textiles using the process known as “fiber welding.” “. The company has obtained eight patents worldwide and has 90 pending.
Haverhals and NFW are winning praise from plastics critics and marketing campaigns claiming to have eliminated them. There is growing concern about synthetic microfiber plastic materials like polyester shed with every turn of the washing machine. “I think he (Luke) is the real deal, and I think there are very few people out there who are the real deal,” says Sian Sutherland, founder of A Plastic Planet, a non-profit organization. non-profit that aims to eliminate the use of plastic. “It’s not just about eradicating fossil fuels from the textile industry, but beyond that, it’s also about toxins. “
NFW has attracted a handful of renowned investors including Ralph Lauren, BMW’s iVentures and Allbirds. In July, the company said it had raised $ 15 million from private investors, bringing its total to $ 45 million. Some of that money was spent on expanding its plant in Peoria, Illinois, where it is now working to increase production to hundreds of thousands of square feet of Clarus per month. In September, NFW announced a partnership with Patagonia to integrate Clarus fibers into some of the brand’s new products. Haverhals says hundreds of brands are online to purchase the company’s textiles for their own products. He says NFW will provide standardized products to manufacturers and work with brands in the hope of developing specialty textiles.
Mirum, NFW’s other product line, is a plant-based alternative to leather. It is made from coconut shells, natural rubber or cork and is hardened or enhanced for durability, using patented chemistry without petrochemical additives. This sets Mirum apart from other synthetics that rely on harsh chemical treatments to achieve the desired consistency or feel. The company offers it as a substitute for leather in products such as automobile interiors and footwear. Allbirds plans to start selling shoes made with Mirum soon.
Kasper Sage, managing partner of BMW’s iVentures venture capital arm, says NFW holds promise because its products are high-quality and durable, and the technology is scalable, which is important to automakers. “It’s the only company we’ve found… trying to tackle this problem, which has the potential to really be successful in serious automotive production,” Sage said.