The Ultimate Silver Lining
How Bill McNally turned his idea for an antibacterial fabric into a $50 million sensation.
(Business 2.0) – Nine years ago, Bill McNally was a senior marketing manager at a Wisconsin hospital when a nasty infection struck a large group of patients. Because of the bacteria's resistance to standard antibiotics, the medical staff was desperate to find a cure for the outbreak, and the options were limited. "There's little we can do," one nurse lamented at an emergency meeting, "short of painting the walls with silver."
Within a few days, the infection abated. But, McNally says, the nurse's joking reference to silver--long known for its antibacterial properties--"stuck in my mind, and I was never able to shake it." His fascination was more than just academic. McNally's father co-owned Sauquoit Industries, a top U.S. textile firm that specialized in silver-coated fibers for clean-room carpeting and for fabric that shields government computers from electromagnetic waves.
McNally figured that silver might hold the potential for another killer app. "If we could weave silver fiber into clothing," he says, "we could give people a high level of protection against infections." And since silver conducts heat far more efficiently than natural fibers, McNally thought a silver-tinged fabric might be ideal for winterwear or for keeping athletes cool. But when he pitched the idea to Sauquoit and proposed to launch a new silver-clothing unit, the company's principals voted him down. They didn't see the same medical and consumer potential, McNally says: "They thought I was crazy."
Undeterred, McNally persuaded Sauquoit to sell him the rights to its silver-fiber technology for $1 million. He launched Noble Fiber Technologies in 1997 and a year later was licensing his own technology, dubbed X-Static, to makers of antibacterial socks for infection-prone diabetics in Japan. When sales took off, McNally realized the socks had become a hit with ordinary consumers too. Why? No matter how long they were worn, they didn't get smelly.
Next McNally, an eight-year Marine Corps veteran, pitched X-Static to the Pentagon, and by 2004 every U.S. soldier was wearing X-Static socks, T-shirts, and gloves. When consumer-apparel manufacturers then fell in line, McNally's privately held company--now called Noble Biomaterials--took off. Today the firm has more than 300 licensing partners, including Adidas, Polartec, and Puma. Stars like Anna Kournikova sport "X-Static Inside" T-shirts, and 61 track-and-field teams wore uniforms with X-Static's silver-coated nylon in last year's Summer Olympics.
More important, the company is on track to hit $50 million in sales in 2005. Noble has been profitable from the start, McNally says, with average annual revenue growth of 50 percent. Numbers like that once might have given McNally's father a twinge of regret--but now there's nothing but family and corporate pride: As the result of a merger in early 2005, 132-year-old Sauquoit became part of Noble Biomaterials.