Industry: Tech & Automation
Products: Additive apparel manufacturing
Chief Visionary Beth Esponnette is aiming to reinvent apparel manufacturing and the supply chain through technology.
Starting her career with outdoor brands in Boulder, Colorado, Esponnette learned about waste in apparel manufacturing. "Being in the outdoor industry was very inspiring," she says. "But we were creating so much product, and it's so wasteful. There was a huge tension there."
Esponnette says about 15 percent of fabric is wasted during manufacturing. The only reuse involves downcycling it into fillings and rags, but that's the exception to the norm. "It usually goes to the landfill," she says.
Then mass-market retail ends up with a lot of overstock. "It's usually 20 to 30 percent that doesn't sell," says Esponnette, noting that the surplus is sometimes donated or incinerated if it doesn't end up in the trash.
"Clothing is tried and true, but the way we're doing it is very wasteful and based on the mass-manufacturing model," she notes. "We're creating bad experiences for consumers, and we're destroying the planet."
After she moved to California in 2013, Esponnette planted the seeds for unspun with a student project at Stanford University, where she connected with unspun co-founder Walden Lam.
"It inspired me to look at nature's way of manufacturing," says Esponnette. "It's such a circular thing, versus us as humans are very linear. . . . If anyone's going to rethink that, I was in a good position."
Esponnette imagined a better way: on-demand apparel manufacturing with minimal waste. Her first experiments 3D printing with polymers resulted in "plastic chainmail, things that no one wants to wear." Next, she looked to nature for processes. "Can we do biological things? . . . As a consumer, I realized we weren't interested in wearing living things."
Esponnette returned to additive manufacturing, wondering, "How can we build clothing from the ground up using yarn so there's no waste?" Her team of graduate students at Stanford sought to prove the concept. "We made a really crude circular woven piece," she says. "It was enough to move us to the next level."
Lam and Esponnette moonlighted with unspun as they respectively worked for Lululemon and the University of Oregon. They knew a new machine was going to be necessary. "There was a huge engineering aspect we were missing and we met Kevin [unspun Chief Hacker Kevin Martin]," says Esponnette.
They connected with Martin through AngelList. "We always joke it's the Tinder of the startup world," laughs Esponette. "We all clicked immediately and hit the ground running."
The three began focusing on unspun full-time in 2016. "We knew what we are trying to do is not easy," says Esponnette. "We knew there was going to be a lot of responsibilities and a lot of hats to wear."
"We were able to make them both work at separate times," says Esponnette. "It was a juggling act."
But it bore fruit. "We were able to build hardware very, very fast," she says of HAX.
While some team members spent time in China developing a prototype machine, others opened a storefront in San Francisco: denim unspun.
Customers come in to the denim unspun store (or pop-ups that the company has organized in California and Hong Kong) for a body scan using third-party technology and select some options for their jeans, and unspun's algorithm takes it from there. "It outputs a pattern," says Esponnette.
Sizes are a thing of the past at denim unspun. "It's not even size," says Esponnette. "It's not even numbers. It's their fit."
The pattern goes to National Apparel, a cut-and-sew contractor in San Francisco, which makes the jeans and delivers them to the customer in three weeks.
But that's only temporary while unspun perfects its proprietary hardware, which Esponnette describes as "3D knitting," adding, "The input is yarn and the other input is the customer's scan."
After a series of prototypes, the engineering team is working on the final machine. "We're crossing our fingers for a year at this point," says Esponnette.
The tests primarily involve cotton fabrics, but she says the technology is largely material-agnostic. "We could run composites through this," says Esponnette. Instead of close to 50 percent waste, it's "very negligible."
The end vision would involve scans at stores or even at home via smartphones and localized production facilities "without any waste, without any inventory," says Esponnette. "We don't see bringing manufacturing back to the United States until we automate. It's not possible to make clothing in the United States that the masses are going to buy."
Challenges: Finalizing the hardware. "What we're doing with the machine is a huge undertaking," says Esponnette. "We're a startup. We're definitely strapped for resources." A $2.5 million seed round in April 2019 is helping to change this dynamic.
Another challenge is adding visualization to the software. "Visualization is something we are working on," she says. "We are able to get perfect fit, but preference comes into play."
Opportunities: "Our bigger goal is to partner with other retailers," says Esponnette of the business model. "We see it as being able to help other industries as well as our own brand."
Needs: Talent. "We have five to 10 open slots," says Esponnette. "We have needs in software roles from computational geometry to software architects; hardware, electrical to mechanical; and even firmware."
"We're also looking for people to lead the push into retail," says Esponnette, describing the right candidate as a "B2B champion for partnerships."
As the current San Francisco storefront is not in a shopping district, "getting a retail spot in a heavily trafficked area" is another unspun need.