“There were a lot of neat things going on in the space of electronics and textiles,” she says. “Fabrics that warmed or illuminated, fabric antennas and sensors for physiology — respiration, heart rate, motion, impact. There were a variety of potential market segments for those flexible components, including the auto industry, which is still looking at bringing heating into the seat fabric and illumination into interiors. The military was looking at how we could modify uniforms for soldiers or use tent canvas as communication antennas or incorporate EMI shielding or communication technology into large surface areas.”

Wearable electronics

Stacey Burr's product line for adidas includes wearable electronics hardware, clothing and apps that allow users to monitor their fitness goals and athletic performance. (Photo by Charles Jischke)

Beyond that, Burr says the carpet industry was interested in pressure sensors to detect movement, including technology for assisted-living dwellings or nursing homes where staff need to know if someone is out of bed or wandering, spending too long in the bathroom or exhibiting unusual activity. Burr also says the possibilities abounded for fashion applications of LED or fiber-optic lights to embellish clothes, shoes, purses or integrated solar panels into backpacks and messenger bags to power electronic devices. The list went on.

“But when you’re a young company and you have investor money, at some point your investors say, ‘OK. There’s a lot of exploration going on here, but what’s your business plan? Focus!’”

So in 2006, after determining that the fastest track to sales was to marry the established sportswear industry with a running community that was already enthusiastic about monitoring their heart rates, Burr and her Textronics team got focused.

“We put together a women’s sports bra with two EKG electrodes — highly conductive fiber that we knit right into the garment as it was produced on the machine — right at the spot where you would place the EKG sticky electrodes they use in hospitals to get your heart rate. The garment then would transmit the heart-rate signal to a wristwatch or treadmill screen.

“We set up a website, launched our own brand called NuMetrex and we started marketing and selling product to women.”

Before long, hip and trendy retailers in the running and yoga communities such as lululemon, England’s Marks and Spencer, and Running Room took the product.

Then, with an inspiration to take the first-of-its-kind fabric sensors to the next level, Burr and her team got an independent seal of approval.

“Because we were the first company to bring out heart-rate sensing in apparel, everyone was looking at the electrodes and asking if they worked as well as sticky electrodes or a chest strap, so we decided to go after FDA approval,” she says.

About nine months later, the FDA granted 510K approval, certifying that Burr and her team’s textile electrodes performed comparably to the sticky pads applied in hospitals.

“We had the first heart-rate sensing apparel on the market and the first FDA-approved textile electrodes,” Burr says. “We had the patents covering the technology as well, so for a small company, that set a level of credibility for us.”

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