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The U.S. National Science Foundation Regional Innovation Engines (NSF Engines) award “NSF Engines: North Carolina Textile Innovation and Sustainability Engine” will advance our nation’s capacity for innovations in textiles that maintains a lens of environmental sustainability and with an eye toward circularity, positioning the Engine as a global leader in this sector. Centered in the “textile belt” of North Carolina, the Engine aims to disrupt and revolutionize the $96B textile industry. Textiles are ubiquitous. If successful, the innovation ecosystem driven by the Engine will result in unprecedented advances in, for example, smart textiles and wearable tech to textiles being used in innovative ways for protection or in the medical field. While other regions of the US have lost textile jobs, this region’s textile jobs have stabilized and the region boasts the largest concentration of textile workers in the US with over 27,000 workers and an additional 30,000 in adjacent industries such as waste streams and furniture workers, spanning almost 2,000 companies. The Engine is led by The Industrial Commons, a 501c3 with a strong reputation within the textile sector as well as other fields for being a hub of regional, rural innovation with deep local, national, and sectoral knowledge and relationships. North Carolina State University’s Wilson College of Textiles (WCOT) is leading the Engine’s R&D innovations. The Engine also includes partnerships across community colleges, manufacturers, brands, economic development, and state government, among others. The team is thus poised with the infrastructure and ties to rapidly develop, revitalize, and scale a cutting edge and environmentally sustainable textile industry that can be competitive in the global economy.

Circularity is the pinnacle in terms of sustainability and the Engine will push industry towards it, building replicable systems and innovations to capture and process post-consumer waste at scale, and process it into the building blocks that can become fibers for new textiles. At the same time, the Engine is looking towards immediate impact by taking a broader approach that focuses on all aspects of the sustainability ecosystem. This includes an emphasis on designing for end of life, increasing durability of products, expanding repair capabilities to keep products in use and developing better systems and processes for textile reclamation. The Engine will also focus on increased consumer education and increased re-use of materials including additional material from the landfill and toward downcycling options such as production of nonwovens. The Engine will research and advance additive chemistries (including PFAS), new materials, manufacturing and operations, and chemical and mechanical recycling. The Engine will also be forward looking with textile application in, for example, fiber-based materials used in wind turbine blades or health monitoring of roadways; bridges and structural components, nanofibers used in battery components such as the separators, anodes and cathodes to improve storage performance; and geotextiles used in hardscape and landscape applications to prevent pests from accessing crops without compromising water and light penetration. Last, the Engine will also seek opportunities to both develop and inform policy, standards, and labeling that create clear definitions for textile circularity and sustainability, and facilitates broader understanding of advanced and sustainable materials.

The Engine has a region of service that encompasses the local textile supply chain covering central and western North Carolina, and stretching into the Appalachian regions of upstate South Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and southern VA. The Engine has a strong foundation in inclusive economic development and workforce development through its lead organization, The Industrial Commons (TIC), which founds and scales employee-owned social enterprises and industrial cooperatives, and supports frontline workers to build a new southern working class. North Carolina State University’s Wilson College of Textiles (WCOT), an international leader in textile innovation, will drive R&D together with other academic institutions. The Engine’s translation of R&D to products is built on partnerships such as the Manufacturing Solutions Center (MSC)—which supports US manufacturers through, for example, a business incubator and will be providing product testing, prototyping, and sourcing; Bear Fiber—the nation’s first processor and manufacturer of American grown textile-grade hemp fiber, yarn, fabric and apparel; and capital access and venture capital development such as the state-level foundation, NC IDEA. Leading the workforce development efforts, together with other community colleges and manufacturers, is Gaston College’s Textile Technology Center (TTC), which will provide, for example, testing, rapid prototyping, and will develop better equipment and measurements for biodegradation testing and overall sustainable fiber life cycle testing. The Engine is further supported by North Carolina’s Department of Commerce and North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. RTI International (RTI), a nonprofit research institute, will be leading the Engine’s evaluation efforts, leveraging its expertise in technology-based regional economic development.

The Engine is deeply committed to ensuring accessibility to well-paying, quality jobs for all communities in the region of service and to preparing the region’s existing and future workforce for the innovations to come in sustainable textiles. The Engine’s workforce development efforts involve creating new curricula and certificates at the partnering community colleges focused on the Engine’s topic, growing apprenticeship and internship opportunities for high school and community college students within the range of textile manufacturing companies in the region, and increasing worker diversity, worker voice, and agency. For example, partnering with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the Engine plans to establish a formal textile career pathway. The Engine will also continue to expand partnerships with workforce development entities including state and government institutions and job pipeline programs, such as the County Health Departments, many of which are managing opioid settlement funds to create new pipelines. It will additionally build partnerships with organizations that provide wrap-around services that address barriers to employment in order to create resources for manufacturers to navigate these processes, update internal policies and more quickly hire veterans, immigrant workers or returning citizens as well as sharing wage scales, communicating with all employees the pathways to advance within their workplace. It also plans to establish “Job Quality Standards” to hold employers accountable to health and safety standards, as has been successful in the Carolina Textile District.

This region has deep roots in the textile industry, with over one hundred years of experience, together with the density of companies, textile workers, and R&D expertise that can drive forward innovation, making this Engine the prime location in the US to revitalize this industry and build a textile-focused, environmentally sustainable innovation ecosystem. The assembled starting coalition includes a well-established group of leaders, connectors, innovators, and doers in the textile sector, all driven by the goal of inclusive economic development that will bring with it new jobs, opportunities, and economic prosperity for the region.

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