artin Cooper, the father of the cell phone, is not the first or last Illinoisan to push the boundaries of technological innovation. Every decade inventors from Illinois are shaking up society. Some of the world’s most common conveniences, the dishwasher, the TV remote — even zippers, were all invented in the Land of Lincoln.
Even now, inventors in Illinois continue to revolutionize everyday items. Natural Fiber Welding, a Peoria-based company, is redefining what our clothing is made from and, in doing so, providing an answer to the world’s textile waste crisis.
According to Boston University, each year, people in the United States throw out more than 34 billion pounds of used textiles, with 66% ending up in landfills. While wool can take one to five years to disintegrate, synthetic fibers, such as polyester, nylon and spandex, can take up to 200 years to fully decompose.
To combat the growing piles, NFW developed a technology that transforms plants and natural fibers into fabric, footwear and other durable goods. The company currently boasts four eco-friendly materials; MIRUM, a plant-based plastic-free faux leather; CLARUS, a performance cotton textile altered to be an alternative to synthetic fabrics; PLIANT, the world’s first naturally cured performance rubber outsoles; and TUNERA, a first-in-kind plastic-free foam.
Photo Courtesy of Allbirds
“We envision a world that doesn’t rely on plastic, where abundant natural materials enable people and the planet to thrive together,” said Luke Haverhals, CEO and founder of Natural Fiber Welding, in 2022. “We’re here to leave the world better than we found it and we look forward to working with our brand partners to build a comprehensively circular coalition for the planet.”
NFW’s growing network of associates includes big names in the fashion industry. New Balance, Wolverine Worldwide, Allbirds, Camper and Deckers are all members of NFW’s Footwear Collective, a group of like-minded brands working to advance the development of naturally circular performance material for footwear. Each member of the Footwear Collective has released or is working on shoe designs that feature NFW’s technology.
“New Balance is developing pinnacle performance footwear in 2024 that leverages NFW’s CLARUS® natural yarns,” said New Balance Senior Manager of Innovation Katy O’Brien in a press release. “NFW’s material breakthroughs are revolutionizing the way the entire industry makes, uses, and ‘disposes’ of products.”
Allbirds chose to include MIRUM in its first collaboration with the company. In September 2022, the shoe designer released the Plant Pacer Sneaker, Allbirds’ first plant leather product. The wheels for this project were first set in motion in early 2021 when Allbirds invested $2 million as part of NFW’s Series A.
“For way too long, fashion companies have relied on dirty synthetics and unsustainable leather, putting established ways of doing things and costs before the environment. We wanted to put an end to that, which led us to create the Plant Pacer,” said Tim Brown, Allbirds co-founder and co-CEO.
The Plant Pacer demonstrates that with materials like MIRUM available, companies don’t have to sacrifice standards, animals or the environment to produce high-quality products.
Even couture fashion brands have recognized that NFW’s eco-friendly technology can easily replace animal-made materials. Luxury designer, Stella McCartney, debuted handbags made with MIRUM in her Winter 2023 Paris fashion show.
“My Winter 2023 show is both a celebration of the love between humans and animals, as well as a call-to-action to take a stand for our planet — the perfect setting to introduce my iconic Falabella and Frayme bags in MIRUM®,” said Stella McCartney in 2023. “I have long dreamed of the day when we would see a plant-based alternative to leather that does not kill a single creature and can be easily given back to Mother Earth, without creating waste. There is no compromise on desirability or durability; the future of fashion has arrived.”
Resources to Remember
The future of fashion isn’t the only thing that’s arrived in Illinois. Throughout the state, opportunities to accelerate innovation have taken root.
The Illinois Innovation Network (IIN) connects entities across the state to drive integrated research and economic development. In December 2022, the organization received $37.3 million to construct and renovate innovation hubs at five universities. Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), Northern Illinois University (NIU), Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC), Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) and the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) will all benefit from the funding IIN received through the Rebuild Illinois Capital program.
“NFW’s material breakthroughs are revolutionizing the way the entire industry makes, uses, and ‘disposes’ of products.”
— Katy O’Brien, Senior Manager of Innovation, New Balance.
“From researching water resources at NIU’s Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability to addressing food deserts and agricultural challenges at SIUC’s Illinois Food, Entrepreneurship, Research, and Manufacturing hub, young Illinoisans will have the opportunity to shape our future by coming up with cutting-edge solutions to our 21st-century problems — all while furthering our state’s status as a national hub for all things research and innovation,” said Governor JB Pritzker.
Entrepreneurial resources, such as mHUB, a manufacturing hardtech innovation center, have played a crucial role in attracting worldwide attention to Illinois’ research network. Since its establishment in 2017, mHUB has supported over 500 startups and 200 manufacturers that have launched more than 1,500 products. These companies have created over 5,000 jobs and generated over $2.6 billion of economic activity.
By working with mHUB, entrepreneurs can collaborate with industry partners and investors in the early stages of physical product development, enabling them to accelerate commercialization. Creators with inventions geared toward advanced and sustainable manufacturing, climate and energy tech, medical devices, and other industries have greatly benefited from mHUB’s resources and network.
Seven years after the organization opened its first location, mHUB announced that it was expanding its Chicago footprint. In April, the organization acquired a historic manufacturing facility in the Kinzie Industrial Corridor for $50 million. This new location will increase the organization’s office space and prototyping and testing facilities.
Following this expansion, mHUB will be the largest independent manufacturing innovation center in the country. Over the next five years, it is predicted to support over 450 new startups and manufacturers, create 4,500 new jobs, and generate over $2.1 billion in revenue and $1.95 billion in investment.
As innovators continue to come to the state, attracted by its universities and research assets, it’s only a matter of time before another groundbreaking discovery from Illinois is announced.