The symbolism of a meeting of entrepreneurs in Lawrence one night last week couldn’t have been lost on those in attendance. Mass Innovation Nights, which has put together salons featuring the cutting edge in Massachusetts products for more than a decade, held episode No. 123 at IndusPAD in Lawrence. The venue occupies the former space of Polartec, née Malden Mills, a former star in the region’s constellation of textile manufacturers.
How fitting that products featured that evening, along with a handful of presentations by small-business owners, represented the modern face of the local apparel industry. Unlike the textile operators of yore, these companies design and manufacture insulated jackets, deerskin boots that promise to be the “softest boot you will ever own,” and baby pajamas with an easily accessed diaper, just to name a few.
They may not be of the size and scope of the old American Woolen Company, which had a sprawling footprint in the Merrimack Valley, or even the old Smith and Dove flax factory in Andover — at least not yet. One cannot help but think the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship that once kept looms clanking in the mills of the Merrimack Valley, or that inspired shoe manufacturers and machinery makers from Haverhill to Beverly, is alive in the dreams of people like Brian Mohika.
A Lawrence native and Air Force vet, Mohika is a registered nurse who found the innovator’s inspiration as he observed the troubles faced by patients who had surgery on their liver or kidneys. Often, they were required to wear bags to drain fluid from those organs — bags that were cumbersome and slid up and down their legs.
Mohika’s brainstorm was to design an undergarment that could conceal the bags, which led to a product called CathWear and a patent. That was the seed of a local business that was showcased at last week’s event, which was designed as both a networking opportunity and a chance to introduce businesspeople to experts who can assist them, if not invest in them. (The Lawrence Partnership was a co-sponsor.)
“The ultimate goal is to create jobs in Lawrence,” Mohika said of his business during an interview with reporter Paul Tennant last summer. “I just want to show there’s something positive in the city.”
Among other products in last week’s lineup was a chukka-style boot made by T.B. Phelps, which manufactures handsewn shoes, among other leather goods, in a shop in Haverhill. Or the aforementioned pajamas, made by Lawrence-based Gunamuna, which also creates swaddle sacks and sleep sacks for infants and babies.
Then, there were the chic dresses and tops made from Ghanian fabrics by the company Hope Sews — the brainchild of a Babson College student who now makes her clothes in New York and puts a portion of her profits into microloans for seamstresses needing electric sewing machines and other equipment. Maya Mutalik’s business began as a partnership with a seamstress named Vida, who she met on a trip to Ghana in 2017. “I’ve never seen myself as a designer but it’s been really fun,” said Mutalik, a business major whose enterprise has gotten a lot of attention, including a listing among BostInno’s “50 on Fire” last fall.
Maybe last week’s event at IndusPAD, itself designed as a space to support growing businesses, gave these products and business owners an important connection or, somehow, a leg up. Maybe a name exchanged leads to an important connection or investment down the road.
For the rest of us, the show and tell was a sign that an industry that once meant everything to this region’s economy may look a lot different than it once did — no longer occupying block-long mills, for example — but in many respects is still glowing. And it’s encouraging to see that glow reflected by so many promising businesses.