The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tracey Cugno felt like she was constantly packing overnight bags each week. Shoes, in particular, were the most challenging: they take up a lot of space and the the bags, and everything inside, would take on the odor of the shoes. Thinking there must be a better way to pack shoes away from clothes and prevent any residual odor, she repurposed a bag that already had compartments as her prototype and showed it to travelers at local airports.
In November 2019, she launched Leigh ShoeCase Company. Her first product, the ShoeCase, has interior sliding system that can fit about five pairs of shoes.She partnered with Noble Biomaterials Inc., which creates the Ionic+ antimicrobial and anti-odor technology used by Olympic athletes and NASA, for the lining.
Now she’s using that same material in other products.
Q: The travel industry has been pretty quiet during the pandemic. How did you stay relevant?
Cugno: We were doing a pop-up store on Westminster Street in downtown Providence right before the pandemic hit, and were getting ready to talk about staying in the space for good. And then we saw the pandemic really slowing business travel, and then travel in general and Friday, March 13, 2020 was our last day. Being a newer travel brand based in Rhode Island, we were concerned about what this could mean, and took a pause.
But then we started thinking about soft fabrics and how this technology and silver, the world’s most natural antibacterial material, could be used to keep things and people clean. We came out with our own line of face masks that use the same antimicrobial and anti-odor technology that’s found in our bags.
Q: How is the material you use in your bags and face masks different from competitors?
Cugno: We’re working with Noble Biomaterials, which produces the Ionic+ material. It’s a metalized silver yarn that is woven into the linings of our bags and helps with odor and bacterial growth, which can happen often when repacking dirty clothes or shoes after a vacation or after the gym. We became laser focused on providing this technology in the travel industry and then the pandemic happened.
Our masks stand out because ours are constantly self-cleaning. Anytime that it comes into contact with bacteria, microbe growth is prevented. It’s also anti-odor. In other masks, the odors in your breath will get trapped in your masks when they aren’t very breathable. Plus, our mask is hypoallergenic. It’s comfortable for outdoor activities and wearing in the gym, where masks are still required.
Q: There aren’t many companies that use this material. Why is that?
Cugno: It’s a very rigorous process to be approved to become a licensee. We had to show them a brand plan and we had to show them exactly what we were doing with the product. And there’s only about 10 or 15 factories in the world that weave this technology into garments for the consumer market. But in our long-term plan, we’re constantly looking for new ways to innovate and bring this antimicrobial, anti-odor technology to anything that might be important to a traveler. We’re doing masks, but we are just coming out with a new line that includes blankets when you’re traveling by air, gloves, and pillows.
Q: How do customers respond to your products?
Cugno: People’s ears perk up when they hear about the material. It went from a luxury to something they had to have. In mid-May, we are going to launch our next collection to move to completely recycled nylon so it’s more sustainable, but we are also placing the Ionic+ technology around the outside of the luggage as well, so it will be fully armored with antimicrobial technology.
Q: What are your company’s plans for the future?
Cugno: In my long-term plan, we are hoping to secure a factory here in Rhode Island in the next three years to help with the production of some of the easier-to-make goods, like the pillows and blankets. We’re really hoping to have a training program for people who aren’t skilled in manufacturing yet and then bring them on board. I’m all about keeping is central to Rhode Island and creating jobs here.
We now have our flagship store in Newport, but we’d like some space in Providence, especially when the hotels start to become more active and we have some return to normalcy for business, leisure, and university travel.