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First winner of the IFF Innovation Award: Chameleon International

November 1st, 2010 / By: / Industry News

Many people talk about a dream business or a dream career. Debra Aperfine can honestly say that her business and product lines are the direct result of a dream.

One morning in 2001, Aperfine’s young daughter recounted a vivid dream about a magical raincoat that changed colors as it got wet. Intrigued (and at her daughter’s insistence), Aperfine began investigating whether such a product actually existed. Her search yielded no similar product, and questions starting with “What if …” kept coming back. “And by this time, it wasn’t just my daughter who wanted this raincoat; I had her brother, her two sisters and everyone else wanting these raincoats,” she says.

So Chameleon Intl., located in Oak Ridge, N.C., was created, and after years of intense R & D, ChroMyx™ film was born in 2006. Aperfine feels the applications of this waterproof, temperature-sensitive, color-changing material are virtually unlimited.

Rewarding innovation

Aperfine and her company are the first recipients of the Industrial Fabrics Foundation (IFF) Innovation Award, created to inspire other companies and dreamers to turn ideas into reality. “This is such a big deal, and an honor,” she says. “There are so many companies creating and innovating, so to be acknowledged is something I’m pretty proud of.” Chameleon’s marketing team is excited about the promotional aspects of the award, too, she adds. Presentation of the award and the prize money took place at IFAI Expo Americas 2010 in Orlando at the Chairman’s Gala on Oct. 29.

Aperfine’s nine-year journey from concept to commercialization exemplifies the award’s purpose: identify and encourage ongoing innovation. “We have a working product and a product line, but it’s beyond that,” Aperfine says of her company’s evolution. “It’s that we’re challenging ourselves every day. I think that’s the fun part.”

Aperfine is perhaps an unlikely person to enter the specialty fabrics industry. When she started, she had no background in engineering or the polymer industry, and limited experience in manufacturing and business. Even her considerable skills in communication were rusty after years as a stay-at-home mom for her four children. She started with research, including patent searches. She also cold-called various people in the industry. “I couldn’t really get many companies to talk to me,” she says. “I didn’t really know what I was talking about, so to articulate what I wanted to do was difficult.”

Two industry executives did listen, and their companies are still heavily involved in Chameleon Intl. “They both love challenges too,”’ she says. “They gave me all the reasons why this was impossible and why it wouldn’t work.” Her idea required extensive research into thermochromatic pigments, which had primarily been used in inks, dyes and some injection molding applications, and how to incorporate them into a multiple-step production process without damaging the pigments.

Then the conversation turned to: “What if it could work?” Her mentors expanded her scope by naming potential uses for a heat-sensitive, color-changing film, including industrial safety and medical applications. With their assistance, R & D began in earnest in 2002. Aperfine financed the start-up with her own funds. “In the early years, I was just tinkering around for fun, but you get more serious about it when you’re spending money,” she says.

Making it work

“Hundreds and hundreds of hours went into finding the right pigments and polymers,” she says. “Then, when we had working chips in the lab, it was a matter of trying to extrude into an evenly dispersed sheet material. There’s definitely a science to it.” The first working chip was made in the fall of 2005, and the first prototype in 2006.

“Once we had our first prototype run, we thought, ‘Wow, it works,’” she recalls. “We still had to make changes and tweak things, but we had a working prototype. Then the real work began.” At this time, they also began envisioning the wide spectrum of applications for what they named ChroMyx. “Our minds were going crazy,” she says. “This wasn’t just for apparel: it was for aerospace, for military applications or warning indications for hot and cold temperatures.” For example, it could be used in a bandage to indicate heat exhaustion or to show if a pipe is hot or cold. ChroMyx can change colors if temperature change is on the back side or even the top of the film; it’s not a coating that could be scratched off. Currently, the company is working on dozens of R & D projects. “Each is important to us,” she says. “I think we’re just touching the surface.” The future could hold color-changing films with biodegradables, antimicrobials and glow-in-the dark capabilities, she says.

The company’s next step is to get products into specific markets, with the goal to develop sustainable business in the medical, furniture, architectural and industrial markets as well as automotive and aerospace. Chameleon is also developing its own line of goods, such as a color-changing adhesive tape and other adhesive products for the craft and novelty markets.

Aperfine works with a core group of people to manage the business. With a promising future ahead for the company, she’s ready to inspire other up-and-coming inventors—the primary reason she entered her company in the IFF Innovation Awards competition.

“I spoke with someone this morning that has an idea, is creating a product and applying for a patent,” she says. “Gosh, when she was telling her story, I could hear her children in the background, and she was wanting my advice. I thought, ‘This reminds me of me in 2001.’ So we’re going to help her get her product to the market.”

The big show

Chameleon’s first visit to IFAI Expo Americas was in 2009, which president Debra Aperfine considers a learning year. “We were amazed at how many people from different industries were walking the show,” she says.

“So many people walked away last year thinking, ‘What can I do with this?’” she says. This year, her goal was to help visitors come full circle by displaying possible end-product applications. “This year when they stop by, we’re not going to talk so much—we’re going to show them what it can do,” she commented before the show.

“It’s not just a novelty. It’s a visual indicator for low and high temperatures,” she says. “We want to show that we have engineered composite films that could work in any industry.”

Support for future innovators

She will likely use the $5,000 prize from the IFF Innovation Award to set up a scholarship program for student inventors, to help guide them in the creation process. Aperfine feels that she has much to share about her success, but also wisdom about her failures.

“There were plenty of times I wanted to give up,” she says. “I went into this really naïve and wanted to trust everyone. I learned the hard way that you can’t; and if someone gives you advice, you still need to do your homework.”

And what about daughter Lauren, who will graduate from high school this year? Does she have her magic raincoat?

“Yes, she does, and she designed it herself,” Aperfine says. It’s shown on the ‘history’ page of the company’s website, www.chameleonint.com. She’s hesitated to sell the raincoat apparel rights to ChroMyx, with the idea that the young, aspiring clothing designer may want to use it to continue her own dream.

Lynn Keillor is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

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