The city of Conover in North Carolina is home to one of the nation’s little-known innovation hubs for the textile sector. But it’s poised to make a bigger name for itself as consumers, corporations and the government seek inventive solutions produced close to home.
A part of the Catawba Valley Community College, the Manufacturing Solutions Center’s (MSC) incubator program has attracted North American startups, from apparel and accessories brands to textile producers, furniture makers and engineers. Founded in 1990, the center served as an innovation lab for hosiery, once the area’s prevailing textile business. But the state’s longstanding heritage in fabrics and furnishings has proven a strong foundation for a new generation of textile and technology entrepreneurs.
On Mar. 31, the center will officially open its second facility, MSC II, making more room for companies to develop, test and manufacture their products. The MSC has accepted seven startups in total, and was “bursting at the seams” before a $9-million Covid-era PPE grant from the federal government to the city of Conover made it possible to fund expansion, according to Jeff Neuville, the Center’s director. The new 75,000-square-foot facility houses advanced technology and equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and is the product of investments by the college, the city, the private investment group Whiskbroom, and investor Ingram Walters.
Four graduates of MSC’s incubator program have taken up residence in MSC II as they look to scale production for their growing businesses. They include Nufabrx, which has developed a patented process for integrating pain relief medication into items like socks and knee braces, delivering treatment directly to the source, and YoU Compression, a podiatrist-founded brand of fashionable compression garments and hosiery for wearers with diabetes or other medical conditions. InnovaKnits, a contract knitter that has worked on U.S. government projects to develop products with Kevlar and other unique performance fibers, and Evolved by Nature, a Massachusetts-based firm developing cosmetics and apparel technologies made from silk protein, have also set up manufacturing pilots in MSC II. As the incubator companies move into the new facility, the MSC is seeking its next collective of entrepreneurs.
“We’re very proud of the ecosystem that we’ve created here,” Neuville said, adding that tenants can also conduct critical product testing. “That might be to validate that their product does what they think it can do, or to test its limitations.”
The MSC’s lab can test dimensional stability, shrinkage and colorfastness, as well as abrasion-resistance and antimicrobial properties. “We have an antimicrobial lab that can determine if bacteria is inhibited on a product after washings,” he said, along with a weathering lab “to see the impact of simulated sunlight or humidity conditions on fabric.” Flammability testing can also be conducted on apparel and upholstery. “We can assist them with product development, whether it be textile or structural, and there are a lot of assets in the building that they’re able to utilize to bring their product ideas to life,” he added.
Industry expertise and infrastructure are essential resources for companies just starting out, as costly investments in product testing and production machinery can be a barrier to entrepreneurship. MSC II houses a dedicated fabric formation lab outfitted with Santoni seamless knitting machines, a best-in-class cut-and-sew line, washers, dryers, steam tables, dye equipment, printers and expanded structural engineering capabilities.
“A strong manufacturing base is just so critical to our to our country’s economy, and our mission is to focus on what we can do to support U.S. manufacturing and encourage innovation and creativity,” Neuville said. The functionality of textiles is evolving, with the advent of wearable technologies to promote health and wellness, along with new performance capabilities. “That has created a lot of interest and opportunity, and we want to be a part of supporting those efforts and making sure that there are resources out there for those companies,” Neuville added/
The federal government has also ramped up its focus on U.S. manufacturing following the years-long disruption caused by Covid and global supply chain slowdowns.
Funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, the 168-year-old Remade Institute last month issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) worth $20 million in grants for organizations developing technologies that support U.S. manufacturing and decarbonization goals. Funding is comprised of $10 million in federal funding and $10 million in cost share.
The program aims to promote U.S. manufacturing competitiveness while advancing the country’s sustainability agenda. Remade said it will fund projects that help to secure the domestic supply chain, reduce energy consumption, support a transition to clean energy, and advance the circular economy.
Research and development projects must align with Remade’s focus areas, from designing for reuse, re-manufacturing, recovery and recycling, to manufacturing materials optimization. They must also address one or more of Remade’s designated “energy-intensive material classes,” which include metals like steel and aluminum, polymers and plastics, fibers like paper and textiles and electronic waste. New technologies could have applications across industries, from automotive to packaging, electronics and more.
“By focusing Remade’s investment on RD&D projects, we can develop solutions that have the most significant energy, environmental, and economic impacts nationwide,” CEO Nabil Nasr said. Prospective applicants can submit proposals on the Remade Institute’s website at remadeinstitute.org.