The global market for smart textiles is expected to reach $3 billion by 2024, a positive outlook that draws on a 2021 smart fabrics industry report by Grand View Research. However, the large and small companies operating in this field in Europe face obstacles in the development and scaling up of their products.
SmartX and SmartEEs, two incubator and accelerator programs for smart textiles, have been focusing on this issue throughout their three-year mission as part of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 fund. The programs believe that collaboration is key to unlocking opportunities in smart textiles. Promising projects selected by these platforms have access to a network of research centers, consultants in textiles and electronics, and potential business partners and investors.
“Independent research firms believe the smart textile market will grow 80 times faster than the traditional textile and apparel industry,” says Lutz Walter, SmartX coordinator and secretary general of the European Technology Platform for the Future of Textiles and Clothing (ETP). “But the greatest challenge this sector faces and the reason why many prototypes do not reach the market is a lack of a strong value chain.”
Filling the gaps in the supply chain is what SmartX has sought to address by supporting the SMEs that have the know-how “to fill the gaps.” In this way, it aims to enable Europe to be a world leader in smart textiles. SmartX estimates that the development of these new value chains could represent a market opportunity of €5.5 billion in 2026, if a viable industrial ecosystem is developed to meet potential market demand for smart textile-based solutions.
The two programs share a similar mission and vision. “SmartX funds smart textiles projects that are based on a real manufacturing supply chain, have been tested in a real environment, have a solid business model, and, ideally, are textile-based. These are all necessary for the creation of a viable supply chain in Europe,” says Walter.
SmartX was given a budget of €2.4 million that it distributed to 40 smart textile projects. Each one received up to €60,000, including access to coaching sessions. SmartEEs had a budget of €8 million to support companies developing flexible and wearable electronics. As its second three-year mission has come to a close, it has set up a new structure in Belgium, the European Flexible and Wearable Electronics Association, to keep the program going.
Both programs enlisted a wide range of research centers to provide the start-ups with technical support. Among them are Centexbel in Belgium; Citeve in Portugal; the Science Park, University of Borås, Sweden; and German Institutes of Textile and Fiber Research (DITF).