For fiber science undergraduate Sarah R. Meyers, ’16, taking part in the 2014 Cornell Fashion Collective runway show was simply a chance to show off her newly acquired fiber science skills while indulging in her love of fashion. Together with fellow fiber science students Eric P. Beaudette, ’16, and Ariana S. Levitt, ’15, Meyers envisioned creating wearable tech that would be useful to athletes.
With hard work and some timely help, the students ended up inventing a process that turns ordinary fabric into temperature-responsive textiles capable of monitoring the body temperature, and thus the wellbeing, of the wearer. The secret is in the thermochromatic pigments applied to the surface of the fabric. These pigments, originally invented in China, change color at different temperatures. “It’s sort of similar to the technology used for mood rings,” explains Meyers.
Designed for a Fashion Show, a Wearable Tech Takes Off
Meyers and her fellow students didn’t invent the pigments, but they did identify them as the most likely to yield the color-changing fabrics they wanted. They then sought the technical assistance of chemistry graduate student Alicia N. Potuck, PhD ’14, who was supported by a grant from the Rebecca Q. Morgan Foundation to her adviser, Chih-Chang Chu, Fiber Science and Apparel Design. They also approached visiting scholar Xiao Hong in the Chu lab for help in creating the process that would allow them to bond the pigments to the fabric. Potuck and Hong helped establish protocols to optimize the application method. For overall supervision of the project, the students looked to Chu, who was Meyers’ research adviser for biomaterials and medical devices.
The final result was a full-body sports outfit, which the students designed and made for the fashion show. The outfit was capable of indicating through color changes, when various parts of the body became overheated. The students’ entry was a hit at the show. They eventually approached a sports apparel company interested in taking their invention to market. “We didn’t expect it,” says Meyers. “We didn’t think about commercializing our product at all.”
From Fashion Show to Product Assessment
Faced with turning their student fashion project into a viable commercial product, the students turned to the Center for Technology Licensing (CTL), Cornell’s technology transfer office. With CTL’s help, they took out a patent application to protect their work. Then, through CTL, the Johnson Graduate School of Management’s Big Red Tech Strategy (BRTS) Club picked up their invention. The club, which is part of the Johnson School’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute, pairs teams of first-year MBA students with the developers of Cornell inventions that are likely candidates for commercialization.
“This is a great invention with a lot of potential,” says Liz L. Suspanic, MBA ’17, Johnson School student and member of the BRTS team. “Sarah and her team had identified sportswear as being the best market opportunity for the product. We’re coming in with a fresh perspective, asking whether sportswear really is the best, or whether there are other possibilities. And we want to know if we can pursue multiple licensing opportunities at the same time.”
Suspanic and her fellow BRTS teammates, Emil T. Philip, MBA ’17, Lubka A. Dagorova, MBA ’17, and Yongtae Cho, MBA ’17, have identified four possible market opportunities for further research. One is the original sportswear market. The others are baby products, safety equipment and food packaging. Although the apparel and design students’ product may not be a perfect fit for all these markets, further research and development may be warranted to address the scientific feasibility of the market needs, the BRTS students say. Should suitable technology be developed, “in all these industries, we may have a product that could be useful,” Suspanic says.
Big Red Tech Strategy (BRTS) Club Expands List of Product Opportunities
Suspanic explains that the team has simplified the sports bodysuit to an easy-to-use arm or leg band instead. This is in contrast to other products on the market that monitor core body temperature, such as high tech mouth guards and ingestible sensors that send biometrics to a companion data recorder. High school or middle school athletes, for example could wear the arm or leg band, allowing the coach to monitor the players for overheating. “There have been high schoolers who have died from heat stroke,” Suspanic says. “Right now, these other products on the market that help athletes and trainers monitor their core body temperature are used by professionals and are very expensive. Our product could be low-cost so high schools could afford it.”
The safety equipment idea also uses a band that could be worn on an arm or leg, says BRTS team member Emil Philip. “It could be a precautionary device for people like construction workers who work in the heat for long periods of time.”
It was also recently pointed out to the team that the insurance industry might be extremely interested in safety equipment that could monitor body temperature. “A product like that would lower the risk,” says team member Lubka Dagorova, “and that would lower the premiums for the construction company.”
On the baby products side of the equation, the team members are looking at two possible applications for the temperature-sensitive fabric: a headband or hat that would monitor a baby’s temperature, and a bottle cozy that would indicate when the bottle’s contents are warmed to the correct temperature. The hat, in particular, could have far reaching potential impact, team members say, because it could be a low-cost alternative in poorer countries where parents don’t have the money for expensive digital thermometers or where even baby hats are hard to get. “The product could serve a dual purpose in that situation,” says Dagorova. “It could help keep the baby comfortable, like any hat, but it could also help the parent monitor the baby’s health.”
The final possible product identified by the BRTS team is the only one that is not worn. Instead, it is a sticker that could be applied to food packaging to tell consumers or those in the food industry whether a food is stored at the right temperature. The sticker could be used to indicate either that a cold-storage food is too warm, or a hot, prepared food is too cold.
“We’re coming in with a fresh perspective, asking whether sportswear really is the best, or whether there are other possibilities,” says Liz L. Suspanic, MBA ’17, Johnson School student and member of the BRTS team.
“We have a broad market overview for each of these industries,” Dagorova says. “We still need to research exactly what piece of the market each product would capture and the best way to do that.” The team is especially interested in assessing the viability of licensing the product to multiple players at once, depending on usage. For instance, a company that produces sportswear may have one license, while one that focuses on safety equipment might have another.
Cornell Alumni and Trustees Suggest New Ideas
With the help of Senior Lecturer Steven S. Gal, Entrepreneurship, Johnson School/Cornell Tech, team members recently gave a presentation on their interim findings to the Technology Transfer Council Interest Group during Cornell’s Trustee-Council Weekend. The group members, a mix of Cornell alumni and trustees, gave many helpful suggestions for further avenues of exploration. “They suggested things we hadn’t thought about, like the idea of targeting the insurance industry for our safety application,” says Philip, “or getting the Food and Drug Administration on board for our food packaging sticker.”
The BRTS project goes until the end of the Fall 2015 semester. “In the end, we’ll write a report for CTL,” says Dagorova. “We’ll give them a recommendation as to what we think the next steps should be for commercialization. It’s up to them to decide if they want to pursue them.”