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Interview with Frank Fox & Tom Tymon

Frank Fox & Tom Tymon
Frank Fox & Tom Tymon
Sustainable Composites
Sustainable Composites

Only leather alternative that contains 100% leather fibres
Founders Frank Fox and Tom Tymon of Sustainable Composites were on a mission to develop a process that could recycle some of the 25-60 per cent of leather typically discarded as scrap. They started operations in 2012 working in a basement laboratory at the latter's home. After more than five years and $3 million in R&D, they created 'Enspire leather'-a recycled leather product that not only replicates the look, feel, smell and performance of tanned hide but also dramatically reduces the amount of material that winds up on the cutting room floor because it is supplied in 54" rolls free of holes and other defects. In a chat with Paulami Chatterjee, Fox and Tymon discuss about the initial response to their leather product and how it compares with other alternatives.

So many other brands have come up with sustainable leather. How does enspire leather compare with them technology and durability-wise?

Enspire is the only leather alternative that contains 100 per cent leather fibres. The product is manufactured by a patented process that grinds up discarded leather scraps, and presses them into sheets made from 100 per cent leather fibres. Enspire looks, feels, and smells and performs like natural leather. Other alternatives usually contain reinforcing webs, polymer film coatings or leather filler polymer blends.

How biodegradable is Enspire?

Genuine leather is classified as biodegradeable. Enspire leather would perform the same, but it is not a biomaterial.

What helps to keep the price of this special type of leather low (almost half of original leather)? How much time is required for the entire process of converting scrap leather into Enspire?

To start with, the leather scraps are free with a shipping cost. This keeps the cost attractive. We like to refer to Total Cost of Use since the user will gain considerable savings in yield improvement using our dimensionally perfect and defect-free sheets.
Processing time is a bit more difficult to describe. If all the processing steps were not outsourced and maintained internally, a considerable amount of finished product could be prepared in 2-3 days. Since some manufacturing steps are outsourced, finished product supply may require 3-4 weeks. 

What has been the initial response for your leather?

First response from many "it is leather" - others maintain that they have never seen a product like Enspire before.

How do you visualise the market of your kind of leather growing in future? What may be its future applications?

Enspire is now being evaluated in most areas using leather. Total global market output is about $40-50 billion. Enspire should be able to make a significant impact in this marketplace.

Where does the manufacturing happen? Which are the steps in manufacturing that are being outsourced?

The leather fibre preparation and chemical ingredients are prepared in our laboratory in Lancaster, PA. Production of the leather sheets are created in a continuous mode in a forming operation located in NY state - this is an outsourced operation. Final leather finishing steps are completed at leather finishing operations which are also outsourced.

Will you make the technology available for others to follow this?

Enspire leather utilises a rather complex preparation process - 5 patents have been granted for the chemistry and processing alone. Implementation at a production site requires a few trade secrets. We would consider licensing the technology.

What is the annual production capacity of Enspire?

Enspire leather has been validated at three different manufacturing sites. The largest of these could produce about 100 million sq ft annually.

Have you started any ecommerce initiative yet to sell your products directly to the end consumer?

To date we have been largely focused on B2B efforts. We are now setting up an interactive web site to enable an easy process to sell buffed or finished leather to end consumers. Full or partial hides will be available. We currently do not plan to offer finished consumer articles like bags, purses etc.

Apart from Timberland, which are the companies who have adopted your leather?

The current Enspire product was introduced at the end of 2019. Initial response was strong but then the covid-19 pandemic reduced corporate interest in new products. Market activity is now restarting, and we have projects at Gucci, Wolverine, Ford, and GM plus other smaller organisations.

How do you want to scale up the production process going ahead?

The machines and technologies are ready to go and awaiting orders.

What are your future plans as a company?

Support and grow the use of Enspire in the market and continue the development of new products which repurpose the use of waste materials. 

Take us back to how did you establish your company? What was the initial seed money that you started with?

We began operation in 2012 working in a basement laboratory of Tymon's home. We then moved to an industrial site in the Greenfield complex. Both of us provided the startup funds along with local bank loans.

How did you go on to raise $3 million for the next 5 years for R&D?

Our initial prototype success stimulated much local interest, and all investment funding was supplied by local investors and Ben Franklin Partners.

What was the team size which got into developing the Enspire leather? What were the technical backgrounds like?

Initial startup staff was quite small. The technical backgrounds were provided by Tymon (chemistry) and Fox (chemical engineering and physics) with the total staff level of 4-5 including technicians. We now employ additional chemists and scientists.

Were there any initial hiccups you faced whether for getting the required funds, the raw materials, tying up with various authorities etc?

Our startup did not experience any local roadblocks. Community support was strong. Our process required the use of somewhat unique environmentally friendly material which were often a bit difficult to source.
This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of the print magazine
Published on: 02/04/2021

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.

This interview was first published in the Mar 2021 edition of the print magazine