LONDON — Hong Kong conglomerate Nan Fung Group’s coworking, innovation, and incubation platform The Mills Fabrica will open its first international outpost this coming June in Cottam House, a converted three-story Victorian warehouse that once hosted a greenhouse fabrics manufacturer, in Regent Quarter at London King’s Cross, WWD can exclusively reveal.
With a mission to support companies and individuals who are using tech and innovation to help develop a circular economy in the apparel and textiles, and food and agri-tech industries, The Mills Fabrica’s London base, which is just a short walk away from the under-construction Google London headquarters, will comprise a start-up incubator, an investment platform, a membership coworking space, alongside a curated program of cultural and industry events, and an experiential retail space and café both open to the general public.
Vanessa Cheung, director at Nan Fung Group and the granddaughter of “king of cotton yarn” Chen Din Hwa, who founded the group in 1954 as a textile company, launched The Mills as an $89 million revitalization project that transformed the old Nan Fung textile mills factories in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong, into a start-up incubator, museum and shop floor in December 2018. The Mills Fabrica is the innovation and incubation arm of this regeneration project.
In an exclusive interview with WWD, she said expanding into the U.K is “a logical next step” for The Mills.
“Over the past year, it has been a pleasure to work with our various international partners in this region be it universities, retailers, or other incubators and investors. With this new expansion, we look forward to working with new and current partners in building out an international community of innovators and to continue to support these innovators to take their ideas to market,” Cheung said.
Nan Fung Group is no longer in the textile business, but with its legacy it is in a ideal place to become the go-to platform for “not just start-ups but for established corporates, manufacturers, anywhere along the supply chain and the production process,” she added.
“A lot of times I think people think fashion and textiles is one of those so-called dying, or not so innovative industries, but also one of those which contributes to environmental waste and not the most sustainable industry either. So what we aim to do from the start-up perspective is to enable them to find the right resources quickly so that they don’t waste their time fishing around a big ocean to find whatever they need help with.”
Christian Layolle, head of U.K. at the Mills Fabrica, added that, “As a platform, we’re able to connect the dots between various stakeholders from the start-ups innovating, to the corporates implementing at scale, to the NGOs and governments regulating, all the way to inspiring and helping students. We look forward to seeing this come to life in London in the next few months.”
With the fashion-related start-ups, The Mills Fabrica will support them enabling better and more efficient supply chain and production processes, alternative material innovators, as well as new platforms and business models focused on enabling greater sustainability and circularity reducing negative environmental and social impact.
Cheung said The Mills Fabrica’s incubation program is very personalized and customized based on the needs of each company.
“Each one of them is in a different stage and some of them will need financial help but some of them will need some technical know-how help, or some of them need manufacturing help. We’ve been able to establish a big network and to put them in touch with the right resource they have. Even for those that we don’t end up incubating or whatever, a lot of them would still come back to us to seek some help or advice,” she said, adding that she and her team have talked to over 2,000 companies since the launch of The Mills.
The inaugural U.K. incubatees of The Mills Fabrica include Reflaunt, Smartzer, Colorifix, and Modern Synthesis.
Reflaunt positions itself as a resale-as-a-service tech company that promotes the circular economy by connecting brands and retailers with the secondhand market, allowing customers to resell, donate or recycle their past purchases directly from the e-commerce site of the brand or retailer.
The London-based Smartzer enables brands to distribute shoppable videos across social platforms. The interactive video players allow e-commerce companies to generate sales and capture detailed analytics directly from their videos.
Norwich’s Colorifix is the developer of a new dyeing process that can help the textile industry dramatically reduce its environmental impact. It uses synthetic biology, removing the need for harsh chemicals in the creation or deposition of dyes.
Founded by Jen Keane and Ben Reeve, Modern Synthesis is a biomaterial innovation company that provides sustainable cellulose-based alternatives to reduce the industry’s dependence on petrochemical-derived materials.
The Mills Fabrica’s growing network of fashion industry partners also includes Central Saint Martins, The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, and Fashion for Good, while its notable investment portfolio in the sector includes new material innovators Renewcell, Mango Materials, and Geltor; supply chain pioneers Huue, Chain of Demand, and brands driven by sustainable design and on-demand manufacturing such as Unspun.
“We tend not to just focus too much on the commercial side but more on the manufacturing and supply chain side, because it’s where things get started and can…reduce the negative environmental and social impact from the get-go,” Cheung added.
Nan Fung Group is one of the largest privately held conglomerates in Hong Kong. Having made a fortune in the textile business over half a century ago, its core business now lies in real estate development. It owns over 165 projects including residential, commercial and industrial buildings in Hong Kong, Mainland China, New York, Boston, Singapore and London.
The company reportedly bought Regent Quarter, which includes 30 buildings on the east side of King’s Cross train station, from Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund ADIA for $361 million in 2017. The company’s other London portfolios include office buildings at 16 Old Bailey, 138 Cheapside, and 108 Cannon Street.
In 2018, Nan Fung also bought a majority stake in commercial property investment and development platform Endurance Land to up its exposure in the United Kingdom. The latter manages over 15 buildings in central London.
So far, the group has no plans to further expand The Mills Fabrica concept beyond King’s Cross.
“Right now, we are focused on Hong Kong and London for now in terms of our physical hubs, but who knows? If the opportunity comes, we will consider other locations as well,” Cheung said. “With modern technology, I think Fabrica can virtually be anywhere in terms of location.”