Marty Clemons, General Counsel of startup FyberX, is passionate about the development of hemp textiles. She spoke to Let’s Talk Hemp from Asheville, NC.
How did your career lead you to hemp?
My first exposure to cannabis was in 2013 when Illinois, where I lived at the time, became one of the first medical states. They were issuing twenty-two licenses and a dad at my kids’ school was looking for investors so I went in. I was excited because it was supposed to be a social justice play, righting the wrongs in cannabis. We were the only applicant that was 51% minority owned. We got the license for Cook Country for cultivation and a dispensary and the company ended up bringing in somebody to run it. The social justice play became about money and in the end it got sold.
I have always looked at cannabis as a long term investment. I care about social justice and I am a lawyer who had become a yoga teacher so I was involved in health and wellness and had become interested in the idea of cannabis as a substitute for opiates.
In 2015 I moved from Chicago to North Carolina and researched what was going on with cannabis there. It was hemp. We have no medical program in NC even now. I educated myself about hemp and became ten times more excited than I was about medical cannabis because of food, sustainability and the many uses. I volunteered with what used to be the NC Industrial Hemp Association and became president and chair of the board.
When NC transitioned to being under USDA regulation for the hemp program we partnered with the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research out of Danville VA to produce the Industrial Hemp Summit in 2018. We had been working with CBD and flower growers and to protect smokable hemp in the laws, but when the USDA came in there was more interest in the industrial uses. We produced the summit for five years and gradually it evolved into a focus on textiles.
I had become very interested in textiles myself and was on the advisory board for FIberX. This year I became their general counsel.
Tell us about FyberX.
FyberX is a startup. We are approaching hemp for textiles in a different way than a lot of fiber processing companies. We are working to build the market and demand for US grown hemp in textiles.
In my role as general counsel I spot legal risks of an entity. We are also raising capital, so there is a lot of documentation that goes with that. And I am very involved in strategy for the company. When you have a small team everybody has to multi-task and do lots of things.
There is a big push to reduce the carbon footprint for textiles by 2030 which is very soon. Our lead investor is a large Japanese trading house called Toyoshima. They do everything from sourcing raw materials to producing finished goods. A brand might go to them and ask for a million T-shirts. Toyoshima is one of the largest importers of US cotton into Japan. We are hoping to do the same with hemp. A strategic investor like this is interested in both strategy and purchasing our products. The plan is to introduce a developed hemp textile industry in the US. We want to seize the opportunity to produce hemp in the US for export.
As any industry starts you have to go where the demand is. There is not enough US hemp available for a large brand at this point, so we have to build the capacity. That means working with farmers and processors so they understand the opportunity.
US textile production went off shore because it’s cheaper and they don’t have labor laws. Right now you have to buy hemp from China. But people care more about workers these days, so they are pulling out of China. Our Japanese partners purchase a lot of cotton from the US and they would like to be able to purchase hemp as well.
I am working on revitalization of the hemp textile industry in the United States. We still have textile infrastructure in this part of the country – in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Hemp clothing we produce in the US will likely be more specialty stuff that commands a higher price. It’s magical thinking to think we are going to have the size industry that Asia has with 200,000 acres. But we can grow a lot more than the 10,000 acres we have now.
What do you think is important for people to know about working with hemp?
Hemp is still not an accepted commodity crop. We do not have the status of wheat or soy. We are constantly fighting the stigma. We don’t shy away from saying we use hemp, but you get put in a high risk category for insurance and everything because of the confusion with the broader cannabis category. There is still a lot to do to educate people.
What other hemp projects are you involved with now?
I am involved with NC State in an Evolving Textiles Conference focusing on scaling sustainable hemp. You need a lot of capital coming from government and private entities to create and scale a new industry. A LOT.
You also need people working together connecting the dots. We need more banks. We need more private capital. We need to help people understand that there is not an additional risk to investing in hemp – it’s federally legal.
What are your goals for the rest of 2023?
We will continue to raise capital and continue to create markets. We have different pilot projects underway to build toward testing and branding sustainable yarn and possibly fabric.
Hemp is a pretty accepted fiber in the textile world but the only place to buy it is China. We want to change that. The market is being driven by consumers who want natural fibers. Most of the hemp clothing available is from China. People just don’t understand that this is the only place it’s available. That is what we want to change.
For more information about Marty and FyberX, click here.