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Industry and academia: Partners in innovation

When the textile industry and academic institutions collaborate, they find new solutions that lead to growth.

Feature | September 1, 2021 | By: Jeff Moravec

UMass Lowell engineering technician Patrick Casey prepares a mask to be tested for penetration by aerosolized particles, while Cheryl Gomes, Fabric Discovery Center technical program manager, looks on. During the pandemic, the center acquired testing equipment and worked with for-profit companies to improve their personal protective equipment (PPE) products before trying to obtain government certification. Photo: UMass Lowell.

Red Solo® cups are synonymous with a good time—“barbeques, tailgates, fairs and festivals” according to the hit song by country star Toby Keith. 

But they are also a single-use plastic with few recycling options. As a student majoring in material science and engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., Lauren Choi became curious about the possibilities for turning the plastic party waste into sustainably produced textiles. Choi did some small-scale testing, but needed help. In turning to the Textile Technology Center at Gaston College in Belmont, N.C., the first thing she discovered was that Gaston “really had the machinery, equipment and resources to do all the testing necessary,” says Choi, who is now the founder and owner of a company called The New Norm. 

From student internships to research and development agreements, collaboration between industry and academia is proving to be a catalyst for healthy growth for textile industry stakeholders. By seeking out the best partners for the job and capitalizing on networking connections, for-profit companies and academic institutions are forging strong relationships that are profitable for all, moving the industry forward. 

The Capacitive Touch Sensor (CTS) is a gesture-sensitive functional textile invented at the Pennsylvania Fabric Discovery Center at Drexel University. Here, a CTS fabric is being made on a Comez warp knitting machine in collaboration with industry partner Apex Mills. Photo: Drexel University.

Plenty of opportunity

“Opportunities are tremendous, with elevated interest and support from both university senior leadership and faculty for efforts to expand the impact of scientific research,” says Shintaro Kaido, who oversees Drexel Applied Innovation for Drexel University, a Carnegie R1 (highest level of research activity) university in Philadelphia, Pa. Drexel Applied Innovation provides tech transfer services for the university.

The university is a member of the University-Industry Demonstration Partnership (UIDP), a Columbia, S.C.-based nonprofit association comprised of leading innovation companies and highly regarded research universities from around the world. The association works to find better ways to partner and increase the benefits from collaborations between the sectors. 

“It connects us to their accumulated knowledge and innovative solutions to help increase research and commercialization opportunities,” says Kaido.

Not everyone would be ambitious and confident enough to think they could turn Solo® cups into yarn, and then into wearable fabric. But Lauren Choi, founder of The New Norm, has begun efforts to do just that. Choi started her work by partnering with the Textile Technology Center on the Kimbrell campus of Gaston College in Belmont, N.C. Photo: The New Norm.

Gaston College is also actively collaborating with industry—beyond red Solo cups. “We operate in a very cool space,” says Jasmine B. Cox, director of textile technology programs and business innovation at the Textile Technology Center on the Kimbrell campus. “In the North Carolina community college system, you are tasked with supporting the local community in whatever capacity you can. The textile center does that by offering our services of product development, testing and training to the industry. We’re truly a resource.” 

Cox says there are advantages for those in the industry when they consider approaching the center to explore collaboration. “Our customer intake process is not so restrictive; that’s a benefit to working with our center in this community college setting,” she says. “Some universities may seek intellectual property or credit on a patent. Our intake process generally starts with someone finding us online and submitting an inquiry through our website.” 

The collaboration process

At Gaston, Cox and others who are in a management or business development role have initial meetings with prospective partners to see what they’re looking for and to determine if the center is a good fit.

“They’ll usually send us … a nondisclosure agreement, just to protect that customer’s unique intellectual property, making sure it’s secure and safe,” Cox says. “From there, we start the project planning, including the scope of the work, and our staff will then send an estimate for the cost of service. Finally, our lab technicians will get started on the project.”

Cox notes that the university’s specialists show their clients a good deal of patience, walking them through the entire process. “Prior to the pandemic,” Cox adds, “we strongly encouraged company representatives to be present on the day of the trial run. This affords the company the opportunity to witness the product development process firsthand and to better understand project failures and successes.”

With regard to those red Solo cups, Choi says, “I’ve been very happy with everything [Gaston and I have] done together.” Her long-term goal with The New Norm is to operate as a business-to-business wholesale fabric company, turning at least some of the 7.4 billion Solo cups produced each year into yarn. 

It’s not unusual for Gaston to work with small operations like The New Norm, as well as with larger enterprises. “We consider all of our customers to be partners, no matter how huge or small,” Cox says. 

Inspiring creativity

The Fabric Discovery Center (FDC) at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UMass Lowell) is another example of how proactive higher education has become in seeking industry partners. According to Cheryl Gomes, technical program manager at the center, the goals of the FDC, which opened in 2018, are to drive innovation in functional fabrics, boost economic competitiveness and create more high-paying jobs in the region. Available to startups, small businesses and large companies, a 28,000-square-foot research center in a renovated mill building was designed to inspire creativity and innovation.

“What we do here is we know the faculty and what their expertise is, and we work with companies to do research with our faculty,” Gomes says. “The seed really came in 2012 under President Obama, when we were not necessarily looking to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States but trying to create new high-paying manufacturing jobs.”

The center allows companies, faculty and students to come in and learn to use equipment for producing fabrics, as well as explore other activities. “We spent a lot of time brainstorming at the beginning [of the center’s development] to make sure academic, government and industry would have the equipment they needed.”

The center has proven to be a key contributor in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, receiving a grant of nearly $131,000 from the Massachusetts Manufacturing Emergency Response Team to buy industry-standard testing equipment for personal protective equipment (PPE). The FDC worked with multiple companies to improve their PPE designs, materials and processes before trying to obtain government certification. 

As part of the state’s community college system, the Textile Technology Center (TTC) on the Kimbrell campus of Gaston College in Belmont, N.C., is tasked with supporting the local community and industry in whatever capacity it can. The center does that by offering services including product development, testing and training. “We operate in a very cool space,” says Jasmine B. Cox, TTC director of textile technology programs and business. Photos: Gaston College.

For example, early on, the center’s team ran multiple tests on filtering fabrics and then prototypes for a new N95 respirator, the result of a collaboration between W. L. Gore & Associates (makers of GORE-TEX® fabrics and other advanced materials) and Ford Motor Co. 

When the prototypes consistently passed all of the tests, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certified the respirator in less than two weeks—a process that normally takes months, according to Arlene Parquette, associate vice chancellor for industry partnerships and economic development at UMass Lowell. 

The right place and time

For AR Tech, a division of A&R Tarpaulins in Fontana, Calif., a willingness to try new products and an openness to networking possibilities resulted in a collaboration that came to fruition at an opportune time. 

In 2015, Dr. Mark Comunale, an inventor and head of anesthesiology at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center (ARMC), a university-affiliated teaching hospital in Colton, Calif., turned to AR Tech for help in creating a Patient Isolation & Transportation Unit (PITU).  

“He needed something to respond to the Ebola situation, as there was an expectation that a number of people were going to be evacuated into our area and Arrowhead expected to be subjected to the influx. It was a way to protect patients and staff,” says Bud Weisbart, A&R Tarpaulins.

“He was looking for someone in the fabric field who could produce PITU and enhance the design,” Weisbart adds. “His attorney is a partner with our attorney, and that’s how we got together. It was quite a developmental process.”

AR Tech, based in Fontana, Calif., has hosted more than 200 interns since 1980, enhancing their academic experience. AR Tech projects include designing this custom specialized case for a customer who serves the aerospace industry. Photo: AR Tech.

An Ebola threat in California did not come to pass, but a different health threat certainly did. “We had no idea about COVID, but we knew there were other things lurking out there,” Weisbart says. The PITU turned into a critical tool in the fight to control the coronavirus. 

Weisbart says partnerships are an integral part of the structure of AR Tech. “I came out of social service management,” he says. “Networking was always a part of that, and I’ve always felt AR Tech as much as a manufacturer of fabric products was a center for community education. We’ve had well over 200 interns who we have worked with since 1980. We provide—as all businesses could—an education outside of the academic world.”

From the academic’s standpoint, it’s a matter of having the right experts for each job in solving a real-world problem. “It’s a value proposition that the industry is interested in university relations,” Drexel’s Kaido says. “The approach from the university side is that no one knows more about these topics than we do; we’re the subject matter experts. We may not often have the tools and resources to go to market, but working with industry really catalyzes commercialization that has to happen. … I’m just excited about the current climate.” 

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

SIDEBAR: A two-way street

A new report out of Australia points to the benefits that run both ways when industry and academia collaborate. Some 800 small and medium Australian enterprises were surveyed concerning the value of collaboration with researchers. The results showed that companies collaborating with researchers were more than twice as likely to introduce new products and services than those that were not collaborating—66 percent and 28 percent, respectively. 

The report was released by RMIT University, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and Queensland University of Technology. Report author Professor Martie-Louise Verreynne, RMIT, said enterprises in research collaborations also appeared to be more protected from the pandemic’s financial impacts due to their connectedness.

“The evidence tells us that industry-engaged researchers produce more relevant and impactful research,” Verreynne said. “Now we also see the benefits to business of these partnerships, including greater innovation and resilience, along with more access to opportunities to pivot when needed.”

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