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Why Philly is poised to make big moves in smart fabrics due to Drexel, Jefferson and Israeli partners

Once a big player in textiles, Philly now has the research and talent to become a leader in smart fabrics, those embedded with sensors that can track the health of patients or banish body odor. Eight Israeli companies attended a recent conference here on the possibilities, which could reach $50 billion in sales by 2025.

Once huge in the textiles world, Philadelphia now has the economic incentives, research capability, and talent to rise to the fiber forefront again, advocates testified at the first Greater Philadelphia Smart Fabrics Conference at Drexel University on Tuesday.

Drexel is pushing the cause of product and process prototyping at its Center for Functional Fabrics, center director Genevieve Dion said, sparked by $75 million in grants in 2016 to universities from the National Manufacturing Innovation Institute's Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Initiative (AFFOA).

To serve the bigger collaborative cause, Drexel is taking the lead in establishing a Fabric Discovery Center, to be based in the Schuylkill Yards innovation zone adjacent to the university campus and 30th Street Station.

Come June 1, medical-centric Thomas Jefferson University will merge with East Falls' Philadelphia University, formerly known as Philadelphia College of Textiles and Sciences and still a hotbed for fabric design and research.

The combination will offer a unique melding of minds and research opportunities in the development of wearable garments that monitor health, testified Jefferson provost Mark Tykocinski and professor Mark A. Sunderland. The latter holds the Robert Reichlin High Performance Apparel Chair at Philadelphia University and also is managing principal of Textile Innovation Technologies LLC.

New fuel is being applied to the growth engine at the Chester County-based R&D facility of Saint-Gobain Technical Fabrics, said technical director Nancy Brown, where the focus is on architectural materials that can smarten up buildings.

Also touted were international collaborations nurtured by the Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce. The latter's executive director, Vered Nohi, lured eight fabric-focused Israeli companies to the Smart Fabrics Conference as well as a representative of the BIRD Foundation, which offers grants for jointly developed Israel-U.S. projects.

Sales are nascent so far with Nike active ware embedded with tracking sensors  among the most visible. But opportunities loom.

One of the most promising shown was the first CE marking/FDA-approved EKG (electrocardiogram) tracking smart digital vest, developed by the Israel-based HealthWatch Ltd. Its fabric-based "X-Static" biometric sensors, with up to a dozen per garment, are sourced from Scranton-based Noble Biomaterials.

The vest, which could send heart patients home sooner, would cost about $1,400, said HealthWatch sales manager Mac Cheek, "less than one day's stay in the hospital."

Returning to the Drexel campus, where he studied materials engineering, Stephen Luckowski, the conference's lead speaker, talked of the huge growth potential in the functional fabric market, envisioning a $50 billion annualized business by 2025. Luckowski is priming the pump as both program manager for AFFOA and in his everyday job with the Army's armaments engineering analysis and manufacturing directorate.

For the latter, he supervises multimillion-dollar development projects looking "for the next Kevlar" -- smart fabrics for soldiers that "could keep them cooler or warmer, that could supply time-release medicine, have self-repairing properties, be embedded with (radio tracking) capabilities so we could easily identify and protect our soldiers in a combat situation."

And what if private industry then wants to turn these military breakthroughs into  civilian products, as happened with Kevlar, memory foam, and noise reduction headphones? "That serves our national interests, as well," Luckowski said.

Far more focused on restoring Philadelphia as an idea weaver, rather than a fabric/garment manufacturing center, speakers talked of fast-tracking R&D with machine learning and stressing the market appeal of smart fabrics as data harvesters.

Sunderland recently led a wearable tech test for Verizon Wireless – shirts endowed with monitors tracking stress, heart rate, and salinity – that "the company found very useful in gathering customer information, rated one of their best projects of 2016."

Still, the road to a functional fabric future is strewn with obstacles.

A "transdisciplinary collaborative network" bringing together teams from academia, government and industry is essential for bringing good notions and early prototypes to full bloom, said Drexel's Dion, to avoid the ventures stalling out prematurely in a "Valley of Death."

Carroll Thomas, a director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the U.S. Department of Commerce, also urged players to get on the same page.

But Michael Lubin, vice president of fabric innovation and sourcing for the huge Israeli-based garments maker Delta Galil, said some of his company's good ideas – such as embedded metallurgic agents in active wear that eliminates body odor – had been rejected by major retailers "who are afraid to take a chance on something that hasn't been standardized."

Lubin also argued, as did Saint-Gobain's Brown, that just because you can smarten up a fabric doesn't mean you should.

"We're all about fast fashion, turning celebrity fashion postings into products quickly," Lubin said. "But while garments that light up are huge on the Fashion Week runways and on social media sites, nobody buys them."

Brown said: "You have to be aware of product cost and the economy of scale. We came up with a great illuminating material that highlights architectural details. Unfortunately, just a small bit of it costs $5,000. It may wind up on a gadget at Brookstone, but not on buildings."