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Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

Smart fabrics not yet a perfect fit

Yoel Fink wants a fund that would invest in startups working on products that use next-generation textiles.
Yoel Fink wants a fund that would invest in startups working on products that use next-generation textiles.(Lillie Paquette/MIT)

Will this Christmas mark the demise of the dumb sweater as a gift?

Researchers at a Cambridge lab hope so. They’re developing fibers that would be integrated into the smart sweater of Christmases yet to come, enabling what was once a simple garment to store electricity, change colors, gather data about your health, or even help an acquaintance recall your name at a crowded holiday party.

The lab, part of a public-private partnership called Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, has collected roughly $150 million in corporate, university, and government funding. But its CEO, Yoel Fink, has even more ambitious plans for 2019: He wants to raise a venture capital fund that would be invested in startup companies working on products that incorporate next-generation textiles.

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First, a little not-so-ancient history. Twenty years ago, researchers at MIT’s Media Lab unveiled the “musical jacket,” a denim garment embroidered with metallic yarns that could sense touch. A keypad near the wearer’s left clavicle could control notes and a drum machine. But while the keypad looked stylish, not everything was soft and flexible: The jacket was also studded with a circuit board, batteries, and small speakers.

One of the MIT researchers, Maggie Orth, later ran a company called International Fashion Machines, which introduced products like fuzzy, touch-activated dimmer switches for the home. (They weren’t exactly a runaway success.)

Fink, who in addition to running AFFOA is a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, wasn’t involved in that work. Much of it, he says dismissively, involved metallic threads that can sense touch. (Levi’s today sells a $350 jean jacket that enables you to control some features of a smartphone by touching the sleeve. Important disclaimer: It can survive about 10 trips to the laundry, according to the company.) But metallic threads can’t communicate or store information. “There’s no memory in a metal,” he says.

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The AFFOA lab, in Cambridgeport, feels like a blend of Walt Disney’s Imagineering division and Coco Chanel’s atelier. There are enormous industrial knitting machines, spools of colorful thread, dresses on mannequins, and fun demos: Put on this black baseball cap with an integrated earpiece and listen to a broadcast sent only to you from a light fixture overhead. Fink envisions play-by-play at a sporting match being delivered in different languages, or perhaps geared to fans of the home team versus the visitors.

Nearby, a mannequin sports a black-and-white plaid backpack. But the design of each backpack in this line is slightly different, so when viewed with an app on a mobile phone, you can see messages or images that the owner wants to share with others. (These backpacks, dubbed “the world’s first digitally connected backpack,” are featured in a fund-raising campaign on the website Kickstarter; it aims to collect $10,000 in pre-orders.)

Fink says there are four main categories of fibers the lab is working on: emitters that can send data, receivers, color-changing fibers, and fibers that can act as batteries.

The fibers being produced in his lab, Fink says, “are the most advanced fibers on the planet right now.” As proof, he waves an article published in the scientific journal Nature in August, highlighting a project to integrate light-emitting diodes the size of grains of sand into fibers, and then to weave those fibers into soft, flexible fabrics. (These diodes not only light up, but by twinkling at a certain frequency, they can transmit data.) While the fibers that AFFOA makes feel more like thin fishing line rather than spun wool, Fink believes that Moore’s Law will be coming soon to your sock drawer.

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“The basic ingredient of modern technology is semiconductors,” Fink says. “And the reason there aren’t any smart fabrics out there right now is nobody had figured out how to put a semiconductor” — like a light-emitting diode — “into fibers.”

It’s intriguing to think about a winter coat that could double as a backup battery for the aforementioned iPhone, or a rope for mountain climbers that could inform its owner when it’s time to be replaced. Fink mentions another current project: a patterned dog collar that, viewed through a mobile app, could tell the story of a dog that is waiting to be adopted at a shelter.

And AFFOA, which opened its Cambridge headquarters just last year, is working with corporate partners like Ralph Lauren, ‘47 Brand, Bose, and New Balance, Fink says. When I reached out to New Balance, spokeswoman Mary Lawton confirmed that the company is working with AFFOA on a new kind of running tight but said the company was not ready to discuss specifics of what it will be able to do. The product is slated to debut in the second half of next year, Lawton said.

What would a running tight, cocktail dress, or baseball cap need to do for you in order to make it an appealing purchase? That’s the central question for the functional fabrics industry — and no one yet has the answer.

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Maggie Orth, now an artist and writer in Seattle, says she feels “enormously skeptical” about tech-enabled textiles. “What is the application going to be?” she asks. Health care is one promising area, Orth says, with garments potentially helping people with mobility problems to move more easily. Another could be heating or cooling people through their clothing, rather than with energy-intensive systems that heat or cool an entire building.

And while apparel companies like the idea of advanced products that would let them charge a premium price, Orth says that “every fashion company I’ve talked to had a very strong opinion about return on investment. It had to come in a quarter, or maybe two. Long-term research projects don’t fit into that model.”

Benjamin Cooper, an entrepreneur and researcher in what he calls the “soft systems” sector, believes AFFOA is “a great organization and a step in the right direction.” But, he adds, “anyone who is thinking that tomorrow these things are going to hit the market is going to be disappointed.”

Five years ago, Cooper ran a startup called Sensible Baby that sought to integrate sensors into an infant’s onesie, to detect breathing, movement, and temperature data, and relay it to a parent’s smartphone. The product never attained broad distribution, and Cooper learned that “the consumer market is extremely fickle.”

Fink believes the timing is right. “It’s like we’re in the late 19th century, with horse-drawn buggies, and suddenly the car shows up,” he says. “It’s a moment in history.”

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One way he hopes to accelerate things is by setting up a venture capital fund to invest in new companies that would integrate AFFOA’s fibers into their products; he is aiming to raise about $50 million for that in the year ahead.

Dumb sweaters have been with us for a long time. Are they about to be displaced?

Maybe next Christmas — or the one after that.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.