DURHAM – From oil to textiles – and even prosthetics – developments in hemp-based innovations and products are accelerating at warp speed. And some experts say North Carolina is poised to lead the way.

WRAL TechWire photo

Rob Giddings, Attorney, Hutchison PLLC; Scott Propheter, co-founder of Criticality; Kyle Trivisonn, CEO of ecotEKindustries; Guy Carpenter, president of Bear Fiber Inc.; Paul Ulanch, executive director of Crop Commercialization, NC Biotechnology Center.

“We have a history of growing specialty crops – tobacco, sweet potatoes, cotton. There’s that knowledge base with farmers,” said Paul Ulanch, executive director of Crop Commercialization at NC Biotechnology Center. “That’s why we are going to see North Carolina be one of the leaders in production. The other great thing is [our] textiles heritage. You’re not going to find that level of expertise elsewhere.”

Ulanch was among the panelists of hemp experts and entrepreneurs speaking at LaunchBio’s Larger than Life Science meetup at The Chesterfield on Thursday night.

They were discussing the trends in production and commercialization since Congress gave states permission to run test programs for growing and marketing industrial hemp in the farm bill of 2014.

Hemp is a form of cannabis. But unlike its more familiar sibling marijuana, this industrial version is specially bred to produce high levels of a valuable extract called cannabidiol (CBD) oil without producing the “high” of marijuana’s active ingredient, delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Since then, North Carolina has become one of the fastest- growing states in hemp production. In 2017, there were 1300 permitted acres. That number jumped to 4000 for this year, said Scott Propheter, co-founder of Criticality, who was also on the panel.

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However, producing hemp is not without its challenges.

“That’s one thing my program is taking a look at – labeling of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides to make sure the products can be appropriately labelled,” said Ulanch. “They’ve never been labelled for use on industrial hemp. Researchers, primarily at NC State, are leading the way to make that happen.”

Hemp, a heritage crop

Apparently, North Carolina and hemp go way back. As panelist Guy Carpenter noted, the Tuscarora Indians were native to the state back in the 1700s and were well-known as “hemp gatherers”.

While other Native American tribes were wearing animal skins, they were “processing it, spinning it into yarn and weaving textiles from it”.

“It goes to show that hemp has a natural heritage to our state, our people and our industry,” said Carpenter, who runs Bear Fibers Inc. out of Wilmington, and is focused on hemp fiber processing and product development.

“Clearly there is a lot of growth in the area of agriculture for CBD [cannabidiol, a compound of cannabis that has significant medical benefits]. I’m just a little cautious of that. I’m more of a proponent of fiber hemp.

“A lot of farmers that have idle land, or can’t make the investment that is required to make CBD hemp, can grow hemp for textile fiber and grow dozens, if not hundreds, of acres. We have a real place being a partner with cotton, and making North Carolina known not only for being an agrarian state, but a textile state.

“We are very glad to have an opportunity to work with hemp and take advantage of that wonderful plant again.”

At present, he added, much of the plant is being wasted, its full potential unrealized.

“The industry doesn’t exist here yet. It’s going to take a lot of people who are focused, and keep their eyes on the ball and business, and make it sustainable by making it profitable and developing the industries to help benefit one another.”

Hemp for prosthetics
WRAL TechWire photo

Kyle Trivisonn, CEO of ecotEKindustries, holds his company’s prothestic limb made from hemp on left and another made with the industry standard, carbon fiber, on right.

Wilmington-based entrepreneur Kyle Trivisonn was also on hand to discuss his latest hemp-based innovation.

A board-certified prosthetic technician by trade, he’s dedicated to building prosthetic limbs from the fibers of the hemp plant at his startup Eco TEK Industries.

“Tradionally, the industry standard has been carbon fiber for some years. But I decided, let’s try hemp,” he told the 60-strong crowd.

“Carbon fiber is expensive; it’s also got some serious health implications and hazards that go along with it. My thought process was to look at textile hemp and fiber and create a matrix of materials that do the same job.”

So far, it seems to be working.

“My good friend Mark just finished a half marathon last weekend, and he’s been wearing this hemp socket that I’ve made,” he said. “We’ve had good results.”

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