The transition from academia to manufacturing was challenging for Michael Long, but he was able to use his experience in natural science to start a company with the mission of bringing an eco-friendly alternative to the textile industry.
Long is the founder and vice president of operations at Renaissance Fiber
, a manufacturer of hemp fiber. The startup describes itself as being clean tech with an emphasis on “working for, and not against, nature,” Long said.
Long began his professional career in marine science, which brought him to Wilmington. However, his family roots are in Yadkinville at a farm where tobacco was grown for many generations. When growing tobacco was no longer profitable, however, Long looked to hemp.
“When North Carolina opened up its industrial hemp pilot project back in 2017, I got involved as early as I could, and haven’t looked back,” Long said.
Since then, Long has learned two things: that he is not a farmer with the trade taking years to learn, and that farmers will not grow what they can’t sell. So he decided to be a crop buyer.
“It was crystal clear very early on that the most valuable target for hemp was textiles,” he said.
Hemp is a plant with long, slender fibers on its outer stalk. According to an article on Textile Today, it was probably first used in Asia. As Long explains, hemp fiber is cellulose just like cotton, wood or corn stalk and is used in many things from T-shirts to hardwood tables to paper and packaging.
The use of hemp for textiles can displace cotton and be more environmentally friendly since hemp plants do not need artificial pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, unlike cotton which needs a lot of pesticides, according to the article.
For Renaissance Fiber, instead of replacing or displacing cotton, the company sees the blend of hemp and cotton as a good textile option.
"We hope to bring a sustainable option into textiles," Long said. "In the current industry, fiber blends are the best way to do that. Imagine a textile with hemp's durability and with the comfort of cotton. It's an improvement in quality and impact. That's what we're aiming for."
In the simplest interpretation, hemp can provide lots of textile fiber without the associated impact on natural resources of other more traditional sources, Long said.
“From my perspective, being able to produce lots of valuable stuff without hurting our natural systems is a must-have for 21st-century industries.”
Because hemp fibers are bound up in the structure of the stalk, a chemical process is used to create the best fiber outcome, he said. Some use harsh methods, and Long said he was “not willing to do dirty chemistry,” so he used his natural chemistry knowledge and conducted some experiments that eventually led to a patent.
Renaissance Fiber was built around its patented hemp degumming process that is low cost and ecologically invisible, according to its website.
Renaissance Fiber is in a lucrative industry with the hemp fiber market projected to reach a value of $43 billion by 2027, up from its $4.6 billion value in 2019, according to Verified Market Research. Plus, there are still lots of opportunities to be explored with hemp, Long said.
“There’s really a lot of work happening. And with modern manufacturing technology, the opportunity for innovation is vast,” he said. “This is something we really look forward to seeing bear out.”
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