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Navigating military textile development

The military needs advanced textiles and smart wearables, but this can be a challenging market for manufacturers to enter. Military textile development programs can help.

Features | March 1, 2023 | By: Pamela Mills-Senn

Alaska Army National Guardsmen patrol a training area at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Dec. 3, 2022. The patrol was part of an air assault exercise to evaluate the soldier’s proficiency in an arctic environment. Photo: Army Sgt. Seth LaCount

Bestwork Industries for the Blind Inc. is a Cherry Hill, N.J., not-for-profit employment program that provides jobs for people who are blind or visually impaired, assisting them in achieving financial independence. Although Bestwork produces commercial sewn materials and non-military apparel, its biggest customer is the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), says Jeff Papalia, vice president, textile operations, adding that this relationship is via the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) Troop Support Clothing and Textiles.

The agency’s military clothing line includes items like Navy fleece jackets, Extreme Cold Weather Clothing Systems (ECWCS), Navy neckerchiefs, Army FREE (Flame Resistant Environmental Ensemble) T-shirts, Navy running suit pants, fire-resistant (FR) flight deck jerseys and more.

Papalia is also the chair of the Advanced Textiles Association’s (ATA) Military Division board of directors. Dedicated to providing members with networking opportunities, education, trade advocacy and specification information, it directs its support to those who do business with the domestic or international military textiles market, including government contractors, helping them exchange information, problem solve and foster mutually beneficial relationships.

The military can offer good opportunities for textiles manufacturers, but entry can prove difficult. The ATA Military Division is a resource for those interested in successfully serving that market. The Defense Manufacturing Community Support Program (DMCSP) is another tool for providers/innovators of advanced textiles and smart wearables.

“We use DMCSP as a valuable resource to help advance technology, productivity and overall performance enhancements to support the warfighters,” says Papalia. “Service members are always looking for state-of-the-art performance uniforms and accessories. They want lighter weight, dryer, warmer and, overall, more protection. DMCSP is able to learn about the needs of the industry … [giving] us the ability to produce items with their product knowledge.”

Paratroopers receive commands from a jumpmaster inside a C-130 Hercules over Son Tay Drop zone at Camp Rudder, Fla., Oct. 26, 2022. The jump was performed to develop and maintain proficiency in night airborne operations. Photo: Army Staff Sgt. Daniel Lee (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Daniel Lee)

A long-term investment

Michael Mullins is the director of Defense Industry Initiatives, NC State University, Industry Expansion Solutions (IES). Located in the College of Engineering, IES is focused on small- and mid-sized manufacturers in the state. Its purpose is to help them innovate technologies and improve product design, manufacturing processes and industrial management systems, providing this assistance in multiple ways.

In August 2021, the DoD’s Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation (OLDCC) selected North Carolina as one of five states in the country to receive the designation of “Defense Manufacturing Communities.” That September, the OLDCC awarded NC State University IES one of the five grants provided under the DMCSP.

“The purpose of the DMSCP is to make long-term investments in critical skills, facilities, workforce development, research and development and small-business support to strengthen the national security innovation base,” Mullins explains, adding that the program is administered by IES.

“The DMCSP grant is being used to undertake a $7,466,588 project to strengthen defense advanced textiles manufacturing capabilities through an industrial production ecosystem that melds cybersecurity, artificial intelligence [AI], microelectronics, biotechnology and additive manufacturing,” he continues. The grant runs for five years, ending in September 2026. Plans are in the
works to sustain it.

Bestwork Industries for the Blind employee Arleen Still is shown examining fabric. The not-for-profit employment program provides jobs for people who are blind or visually impaired, helping them achieve financial independence. Photos: Bestwork Industries for the Blind 

More than 20 entities statewide are involved in the North Carolina Defense Manufacturing Community Support Program (NCDMSCP) Consortium, which is tasked with building on “existing textile manufacturing collaborations,” laying the foundation for the research, development and production of smart textiles and wearable devices designed to support the health and performance of warfighters, says Mullins.

Because 2022 marked the DMCSP’s first year, six companies were selected to pilot North Carolina’s DMCSP pre-accelerator program, rather than applying, says Mullins. In the future, the selection process will require applications, and the NCDMCSP launched an online application process in February 2023. Mullins describes the DMCSP as an “entrepreneurial design thinking program” adapted to science- and technology-focused companies. 

“Graduates go on to raise non-dilutive funding, obtain investment funding and gain revenue from customers,” he explains. There was no cost to participating companies.

Steven Fisher, another Bestwork Industries employee, is shown sewing Navy apparel.

Addressing the gaps

The NCDMCSP is looking to work with North Carolina-based startups developing smart textiles and fabrics that, along with enhancing warfighter performance, offer other functionalities like heat reduction, health monitoring, improved mobility, communications, survivability, physiological status monitoring, chemical and biological threat detection, and more, says Mullins, explaining that gaps still existing in the textiles manufacturing pipeline are hindering the DoD’s efforts to utilize smart textiles to warfighter advantage.

“The NCDMCSP will address these gaps by strengthening the coordination of all phases of smart textile manufacturing and product innovation by encompassing the innovation, modernization, workforce entrepreneurship and commercialization needs of advanced functional fabrics and wearable devices that support warfighter health and performance,” says Mullins.

In May 2022, Onda Vision Technologies Inc. (OVT), in Raleigh, N.C., and Prohuman Technologies in Concord, N.C., went through the NCDMCSP, which ran until the end of June 2022. 

OVT is an NC State University startup, originating as an Internet of Things (IoT) company focused on human health, performance and safety, says William Reynolds Jr., founder, adding that OVT is a “spinoff” from the university’s Advanced Self-Powered Systems Integrated Sensors and Technologies (ASSIST) Center.

The company’s focus is on hydration levels, specifically people who experience hydration level shifts as a result of exertion, mission or medical conditions, says Reynolds.

“We’re developing a wearable hydration system based on bioimpedance to monitor the body’s fluid compartments,” he explains. “The objective of our system is to predict the onset of severe hydration changes and to send early alerts to prevent adverse health outcomes.”

OVT’s system provides continuous real-time, cellular-level hydration monitoring via patent-pending silver nanowire electrodes fabricated in a tetrapolar configuration with the sensors and electronics (including wireless Bluetooth®) housed in prototype neoprene compression bands, which come in three forms to fit the upper bicep, forearm and calf. 

Bestwork Industries produces apparel for the military such as this Navy fleece jacket, among other items.

Reynolds learned of the program while visiting the First Flight Venture Center (FFVC), as did Justin Dues, founder and CEO of Prohuman.

A medical startup, Prohuman provides pain-relieving wearables in a device combining hardware, software, AI and textiles. The Class II medical device offers three types of therapies—cryo, thermal and compression—targeting lower extremity pain and chronic/acute musculoskeletal injury. 

Consisting of a soft, stretchable neoprene/Lycra® blend that conforms to the wearer—on the top of which sits the company’s patented thermoelectric system that integrates copper layers with peltier modules, heatsinks and neoprene—the device is run by an integrated chip enabling it to heat or cool on demand without an electrical outlet.

“A manual compression mechanism, called BOA®, will also be woven into the wearable device to allow for customization of the compression levels,” Dues says. “Some pain and injury types prefer stronger amounts of compression; this simple lacing systems adds that capacity.”

At present there are two models, one targeting the health care, orthopedic and sports medicines market, the other a more streamlined version for the DoD and direct-to-consumer markets, although both could be used by warfighters, says Dues.

Onda Vision Technologies (OVT) has developed a wearable hydration system to identify when people are experiencing shifts in hydration levels. The system consists of various components that enable real-time hydration monitoring. Three form factors have been prototyped: to fit the calf, the forearm and the upper bicep (shown here). Photo: Onda Vision Technologies Inc.

For Prohuman, an early-stage startup, Dues felt he needed to gain an understanding of the DoD’s needs, the processes involved in federal R&D funding, and how these align with his company’s technology. Also important was getting a bead on state resources. The NCDMCSP offered a way to connect the dots among a variety of people, organizations, universities and programs, he says.

For Reynolds, the NCDMCSP represented an opportunity to help refine his company’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II proposal, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“[OVT] had a great experience going through the program,” recalls Reynolds. “We were able to share and refine our business ideas openly. All the companies in the cohort worked together to help resolve their own unique business challenges. The highlight of our cohort was the Demo Day. Along with other companies we were able to pitch our business idea to local investors, manufacturers and the members of the DoD community.”

Dues’ experience was similar, describing it as “110%” beneficial for his company.

“Our team gained new insights, new connections and learned about existing resources unique to North Carolina and our DoD community,” he says. “[It was] eye opening to see the robust amount of collaboration between organizations large and small.

“When I served in the Marine Corps infantry from 2003 to 2012, we sometimes started with Vietnam-era gear and then, over the years, received increasing budgets to refresh antiquated equipment,” Dues continues. “Going forward, our troops will be able to maintain a competitive advantage partly because organizations like the DMSCP exist to foster a bleeding-edge ecosystem.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Seal Beach, Calif.

SIDEBAR: Getting in

Justin Dues, founder and CEO of Prohuman Technologies, is shown giving a presentation about the company’s wearable medical device. Prohuman participated in the North Carolina Defense Manufacturing Community Support Program (NCDMCSP) designed to help advanced-technology startups gain an understanding of the DoD’s needs when it comes to smart wearables. Photo: Defense Industry Initiatives, NC State University, Industry Expansion Solutions (IES).

Startups interested in participating in the North Carolina Defense Manufacturing Community Support Program (NCDMCSP) undergo a comprehensive assessment of how closely their product aligns with the grant’s objectives, says Michael Mullins, the director of Defense Industry Initiatives, NC State University, Industry Expansion Solutions (IES).

Next, project partners review the information to further establish product fit and viability, with a “lead” selected based on the findings. If appropriate, the company moves onto the Propeller early stage accelerator program, where their value proposition is further defined. Those selected can attend on site or remotely.

In this stage, they work collaboratively within a “cohort model,” Mullins explains. Guidance from trained facilitators and experienced mentors help the startups create a “pitch deck” and “elevator pitch,” centered around developing their business and financial models, strategies for commercialization, along with a “quarterly and mid-term execution plan,” says Mullins.

“It provides these entrepreneurs with the tools and know-how to launch their business and prepares them for investment opportunities including any equity funding, non-dilutive funding and engaging customers,” Mullins explains. “Whether it’s a first-time entrepreneur or a spinout from a university, Propeller provides the platform to give entrepreneurs the foundation to take their early-stage venture forward faster.”

Additional program support includes devising a commercialization timeline and developing a plan for funding support to put this in motion. 

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