Startups Innovate in Athletic and Outdoor Apparel Sector

Portland is synonymous with big global brands in the athletic and outdoor apparel world given that Nike, Adidas America, and Columbia Sportswear are headquartered in the area. While they’re the largest and most prominent, smaller startup firms have developed new technologies and methods to help push the industry forward.

The CEOs of three such firms, including Embodee’s André Wolper, discussed their progress and challenges as part of a panel at the Portland Athletic and Outdoor Industry’s third annual celebration. The group, an initiative of the Portland Development Commission, strives to nurture this fast-growing sector that numbers some 800 companies with 14,000 employees throughout Oregon.

Joining Wolper in the “Bringing Big Ideas to Life” discussion were Ken Barker, CEO of CRAiLAR, and D’Wayne Edwards, CEO of Pensole Footwear Design Academy. CRAiLAR produces natural fibers in an environmentally sustainable way for the textile and other industries. Pensole gives design students the training and tools to land jobs as shoe designers.

The trio described their businesses, challenges they’ve faced nurturing them, and gave advice to other entrepreneurs in the audience.

“One of the things that distinguish us from anyone else out there is the 3D models we create of apparel samples,” Wolper said. “They’re very, very high fidelity, and can be created at scale. That enables companies to customize products online before making them. Or it enables a brand to sell-into their channels with virtual samples. And it lets consumers virtually try on clothes before deciding whether to buy them.

“The fidelity is indistinguishable from the physical product,” Wolper said. “Product can be spun, zoomed in on, lit, interacted with on an iPad with your fingers. And thus the whole product comes alive in a way that the sales department can use.”

Barker said CRAiLAR’s unique flax is the first natural sustainable fiber capable of revolutionizing the textile industry, using a small fraction of the water needed to grow cotton. Retailers will sell apparel made with it for the first time starting in February.

Not having all the answers when starting and growing a company isn’t an impediment, Barker said. “Surround yourself with people that have a vested interest in your success, and let the rest happen.”

Edwards, former footwear design director for the Jordan brand at Nike, started Pensole two years ago to help young design students from all socioeconomic backgrounds enhance their chances of getting jobs at places like Nike. He said he’s helped some 35 students land design roles in companies around the globe and in Portland.

Edwards’ advice to those starting their own companies in the sector: “When you’re starting out new you need some type of credibility, you can align yourself with some strategic partners that can elevate your brand. Then it becomes a little bit of an easier climb.”

Wolper, who worked at Intel for 20 years before striking out on his own, said that starting Embodee four years ago without the influence and resources of a larger company was a challenge. Part of his formula for success: “Think big. Bring something of value. Believe in yourself and be persistent.” It will prove the naysayers wrong.

Here’s more coverage of the panel discussion from the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network.