The following is a letter to the editor of Specialty Fabrics Review by Donald L. Sturgeon, Ph.D., president of Multifibers LLC. It is in response to an article I wrote for the Review about IFAI’s Smart Fabrics Conference in April 2018. I found Mr. Sturgeon’s letter particularly interesting – and timely – because I had just interviewed Ben Cooper of IoClothes and he had talked about the same subject: a lack of adequate R&D funding for innovative, new textile technologies and products. The article that includes Cooper’s remarks will run later this month in the Featured section on this site. I anticipate more discussion on the topic in the future, and I hope you’ll both follow it and join in. ~ Janet Preus, senior editor, Advanced Textiles Source
If innovation is a key to growth and profitability because of the differentiation it can offer in our broadly commoditized industrial fabrics industry—one that for decades has been under strong pricing pressure from low-cost imports—then R&D is an essential component of a company’s toolbox for financial success.
Our experience, however, coincides with the observation of MIT professor Dr. Yoel Fink, CEO of the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) in the Specialty Fabrics Review issue of July 2018 (pg.22) to the effect that investment in R&D in functional fabrics is very low. In this regard, consideration of the potential contribution to innovation of independent researchers and small science and engineering based start-ups seems to have been ignored by the industrial fabrics establishment.
Discussions on innovation are widespread, from industry publications to national and local dailies. They invariably warn the innovator that for the commercial adoption of his better mousetrap, it has to have a market. Implicit in this warning is that the burden of identifying or creating a need lies on the shoulders of the party that is providing the new product or process. However, precisely because the knowledge that is brought forward is new, the problems it might solve will be most apparent to the established participants in the trade, rather than to the inventor whose competence may well lie elsewhere.
The business fertility of proactively facilitating the bridging of this divide seems to have also eluded the professional and trade associations. We have not identified in the industrial fabric space an easily accessible forum for the preliminary exploration of the potential commercial interest of new textile technologies. Certainly not one that is unencumbered by the excessive up-front academic and governmental formalities that weigh heavily on typically underfunded individual inventors and early start-ups. Thus, the potential synergies between established industry and purveyors of the new and different remain largely un-explored.
There is instead no shortage of national, state and local classroom training courses that teach how small businesses, independent professionals and start-up enterprises should put together business plans. Moreover, it’s disappointing to encounter little interest among significant established players in the industrial fabrics space about anything much beyond incremental changes in products and processes; even when the technical and marketing risks of the new technologies are demonstrably manageable.
If the question of the established producer is: “Is there a need for the improvement your innovation offers?”, and the answer of the innovator happens to be, “Yes, but the need is one that may not be widely recognized and/or requires further validation in the market that you serve,” the interaction too often comes to an end with the innovator encouraged to seek support from the U.S. government.
Those that have successfully implemented game-changing technology will attest to the fact that the demonstration of its value and the harnessing of its profitability required marrying the knowledge competence of the inventor with the manufacturing and marketing capability of the producer. Fairly valuing the relative contributions of the two parties would seem to be the obvious basis for a partnership.
What is needed to facilitate this outcome is an agile, open-minded and welcoming forum where, with proper regard to intellectual property considerations, at an early stage of textile new product and process development, innovators and producers can meet to give serious consideration to technology that is in gestation. This would prioritize the continuing development of what has the best prognosis for success, and it would economize resources on initiatives that fully informed parties agree are less likely to succeed short or longer term in the market.
Donald L. Sturgeon, Ph.D., is president of Multifibers LLC based in Wilmington, Del.