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Intelligent Textiles: Asha Peta Thompson

To kick start your Wednesday, here is an inspiring story about an ambitious textiles student who has ended up with a contract designing innovative fabrics for the Ministry of Defence, worth several billions of pounds!

While studying at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Asha Peta Thompson was initially interested in experimenting with textiles to find ways of imparting the National Curriculum to children with special educational needs.  In turn this led to Thompson gaining a research grant from Brunel University’s Design for Life project, where she met, and started to work with, Dr Stan Swallow, a lecturer with a background in engineering.

It is a well-known phenomenon that some of the world’s best inventions synthesise art and science, and so it proved to be the case when Thompson’s expertise in textiles combined with Swallow’s knowledge of electronics, to spawn various revolutionary types of weaves.  The pair secured various patents on their designs under the trading name “Intelligent Textiles”; and they were awarded a private grant through the University – which led to the construction of a custom loom in Switzerland.

The prospects of success for a number of Thompson’s products (such as a fabric QWERTY keyboard) initially looked promising, but ultimately did not take off in the market.

Thompson’s hard work finally paid off, however, when she exhibited some of her weaves in Canada and one of her innovations attracted the interest of the Canadian military.  This fabric, when squeezed, forms an electric switch – allowing power and data to be transmitted wirelessly through cloth.  For the next three years Intelligent Textiles worked on a project to prove that USB2 power and data could be transmitted around a soldier’s uniform.

Thompson was later head-hunted by the British MOD when conducting a presentation to NATO in Brussels, and soon after, Intelligent Textiles was granted funding by the MOD’s Centre for Defence Enterprise to develop a system which could lighten the burden for British soldiers.  Thompson’s innovative weave eradicates the need for wires, so that power can be transmitted from a backpack, through a uniform, up to a helmet and down to a glove, to potentially power a weapon.

Thompson states, “One of the problems we have with the fashion industry is they still promote [our work] as a craft, rather than a complicated exact science – just because we do it on wooden machines. There’s a lot more to it than that.”  However, she recommends working with the MOD to other entrepreneurs:  “We’ve found working with the military incredibly easy.  We’re talking and reassessing frequently and there’s also working groups that they invite industry to come and sit on, so we can understand the bigger picture of what they hope to do.”  She adds, “If small businesses are interested in working with the MOD and they already have IP, they might be put off by thinking that they want to own the IP.  In fact the beauty of working with the MOD is they don’t – they just want access to it.”

Thompson has only taken two holidays in the last 10 years, but her tireless endeavours have definitely been worth it, as Intelligent Textiles is poised to take a slice of the annual $28bn (£18bn) global soldier system budget in the next few years.

The Centre for Defence Enterprise is aligned with the government’s Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), which connects government departments in need of innovative solutions to businesses in the UK who have the potential to solve them. For more information on working with SBRI, visit: www.innovateuk.org/deliveringinnovation/smallbusinessresearchinitiative/whatissbri.ashx

[Article adapted from “The accidental entrepreneur on securing a major contract with the MoD – and why great innovation sells itself” by Georgina-Kate Adams, www.startups.co.uk, 20 January 2012]

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