Luke Haverhals founded Natural Fiber Welding (NFW) in 2015, hoping to manufacture everything from clothing to furniture to car parts out of plant material instead of harmful plastics. Now, international clothing brand Ralph Lauren has amplified that mission with a multimillion-dollar investment to grow the Bradley-born tech start-up by 200%.
While the fashion giant is already a natural materials company known for its cotton apparel, other garment makers dominate the athleisure space using polyester, nylon and lycra, made from plastic. Ralph Lauren is banking on NFW's Clarus technology, a new way of manipulating cotton and other natural fibers, to produce the first-ever performance attire from sustainable fabrics.
"NFW can not only mold and shape cotton, we can actually recycle waste cotton into performance apparel," said Haverhals, who also serves as the company’s CEO. "Ralph Lauren is a customer who takes the high-tech materials and fabrics that we can make, then sells clothing that is better for the planet and better for people."
Despite the worldwide economic downturn due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Ralph Lauren-led round of fundraising will balloon the NFW team from about 50 employees to 150 in just one year, with the potential for thousands of new jobs within five years.
"Everyone wears clothes," Haverhals said. "There are many billion-dollar companies in the multitrillion-dollar textile industry, so we’re talking about the potential for a very large impact not just in Peoria but around the world."
While developing the Clarus technology, Haverhals learned that carmakers actively sought a no-animal, no-plastic alternative to leather and leather-like materials for vehicle interiors. The chemistry and biochemistry research professor again turned to his team of scientists and engineers, and Mirum was born.
A new, high-performance material made of plants, minerals and natural waste, Mirum is biodegradable, recyclable and free of petroleum-based plastics, unlike most vegan leather products currently on the market. NFW submitted samples to the auto sector for various trials, with promising results.
"In the same way we’re working with Ralph Lauren on products they already sell that are made from leather and leather-like materials and now getting them to be made out of Mirum, we’re working with the automotive industry."
While specifics are private due to pending deals, he added, "Porsche has been looking and the project we have with them is what I can talk about publicly. We continue to trial materials with companies who make Porsche parts, but many other OEM (original equipment manufacturer) car brands and Tier 1 and 2 automotive suppliers know about Mirum."
Although Haverhals's research began before his career at Bradley, he credits the university and its talent for NFW's ingenuity and success. The company has deep roots in both the chemistry and engineering departments, employing Braves in roles from intern to key engineer, and was granted the Innovation of the Year honor at the Turner Center's 2020 Small Business Awards.
"NFW loves the people at Bradley, especially those smart, young whippersnappers who want to join a company and change the world for good."
- Wendy Vinglinsky