Meet Dr. Luke Haverhals, founder and CEO of Natural Fiber Welding, a company that innovates and pioneers ways to use plants and natural resources in place of harmful plastic. Enjoy this journey and learn how he created this company, and how the Greater Peoria area was essential to his growth.
Q: Can you speak a little about your area of expertise, and what has really caught your interest within the field of chemistry?
Dr. H: My expertise is in analytical chemistry, that’s the measurement science, so how you measure and know different things about the world. I am also a material scientist, so I know a lot about where things come from, where they go to, and in particular, how you make more things, like clothes, footwear, furniture, or even car interiors. I’m very interested in how you make these everyday items out of natural materials instead of plastic. There are a lot of chemists that have worked hard for decades on how to make clothing and other items in different ways, and there has been a lot of focus on doing that using fossil resources and petrochemicals. The company I started focuses on how do you do all that stuff by using things that farmers can grow instead, and make all the materials you need to live well out of nutrients, instead of fossil resources.
Q: In studying and growing within the field of chemistry, how have your studies affected your passions in life, professionally or otherwise?
Dr. H: In terms of professional passions, I am very interested in how people can live better with less conflict over finite resources. The way that that is embodied is if you can make more of your possessions and tools out of natural materials, then you can not only have those things, you can live better, and they can perform better for you. Also, more people on planet Earth can actually have those things. When you think about it, if everyone on Earth was going to live like your average American, there’s not enough resources to do so, as well as the consequences of using harmful resources like that is quite great. We can change that if we instead base our wealth on getting those materials from natural sources, which are very abundant, renewable, and can be produced locally. That’s what I’m passionate about. Fixing that problem.
Q: Where did you get this idea for a natural plastic, and how did it turn into Natural Fiber Welding?
Dr. H: I originally started as a professor at the United States Naval Academy, and during my time there, we had this general idea to make natural materials moldable and shapeable in similar ways to plastic. From a material science perspective, people use so much plastic because you can manipulate it into so many different shapes and things. We already knew that nature has so many types of materials available and that they are more energy-efficient and very abundant. The idea came from this notion that if we can make the natural materials moldable and shapeable in ways that are similar to what we already do for plastic, then there would be a better alternative to how you produce your shoes, clothes, etc. What enabled us to start a company was that there was a lot of investment from the US Department of Defense, and the Air Force in particular. They invested a lot of money, not only in the science that I was doing, but I was a part of a team at the Naval Academy, with Paul Trulove, Dave Durkin, and a number of notable scientist scholars that were also working on these ideas. All of that investment in the idea sort of pushed it along to the point where certain parts could become commercialized. Natural Fiber Welding was created when I joined Bradley University and recognized that the technology was ready to go to market and solve some really key problems that the textile industry wanted to have solved. I started doing the discovery work and knew that starting this company was going to be a viable thing.
Q: What is a recent success that you have had with Natural Fiber Welding?
Dr. H: The technology of Natural Fiber Welding is very applicable to many different industries, in particular, in the textile industry and fashion. We’ve had a few very notable companies in these industries invest in the last year, like Ralph Lauren and Allbirds, and the reason why they invested is that we are taking products to market. In other words, Natural Fiber Welding isn’t just a lab curiosity. We actually have scale, new manufacturing processes, and brands can now make products that are more natural, efficiently produced, lower impact, and made from nutrients instead of petrochemicals and plastics. Those products are actively being manufactured and going into the world.
Q: What caused you to stay in Peoria after starting the company, and how did working in Peoria help Natural Fiber Welding flourish into what it is today?
Dr. H: Peoria has a lot of infrastructure for businesses here. Number one, Bradley. Bradley is constantly graduating engineers and scientists, and for a tech company like NFW, there are a lot of benefits to working with younger folks. Bradley also has the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center here in town, which was a massive help for me because I had never started a business before. As soon as the company got its first bit of funding, I was able to go to the NEXT Innovation Center and set up some of the first commercial work that was going to be required beyond the lab. Peoria also has a great manufacturing scene as well, Caterpillar and Komatsu, two huge companies that have already built a lot of infrastructure of people who weld metal and can cut metal with lasers and all sorts of things like that. Peoria is just a great place to be in the manufacturing business. One of the other main reasons we stayed in Peoria is the people here, some really awesome people that were really important to the formation of NFW. Primarily the Zika family, who were one of the first investors. They were really looking for opportunities to invest in ideas in Peoria and the Greater Central Illinois area. Attollo was strategically making investments to help build up the entrepreneurial ecosystem here, create jobs and businesses and things like that. The access to capital in Peoria, as well as just the people around the business, were intrinsic to the company staying and flourishing in Peoria.
Q: What do you see as the future of textiles and materials?
Dr. H: Definitely Natural Fiber Welding is the future. Seriously, so in the world of textiles and fashion materials, we see a lot of people talking about how materials should have a lower carbon footprint, should be nontoxic, and how we can avoid getting materials from finite fossil resources. Natural Fiber Welding addresses all of those issues, and even as we do that, we produce materials that perform and do so at the right cost point. That’s a key area. There’s a lot of talk in this world about having a circular economy, circular textiles, low carbon footprint textiles, and that definitely is the future. NFW is a unique company that has the ability to make these materials, and we’re working with a whole bunch of household names, like Ralph Lauren, Allbirds and Richemont, working on products that people can buy that are plastic-free, lower impact, and better for the world, all while performing better for you at a lower cost point.
Q: What does your perfect day in Peoria look like?
Dr. H: A perfect day in Peoria… well the spring and the fall are both beautiful times in Peoria, I especially am partial to the fall. So maybe my perfect day is in the fall, and you have a very low-stress drive to work because there is never any crazy traffic in the Midwest like there was when I was in Annapolis, Maryland. You come to work, you get to solve hard problems with wonderful people, at NFW and at Bradley. Then I get to go home, my wife Noel and I have three darling little girls at home. Actually, the plan later today is for the girls and I to take a walk in one of the local parks, get out and enjoy a little bit of food, just enjoy nature, and then go home. Have a nightcap or something. To me, a perfect day is working hard, and going back, and enjoying time with family.
Interview conducted by Jocelyn Navaro- GPEDC Public Affairs Intern
Article written by Emma Richards- GPEDC Public Affairs Intern