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Smart Fabrics Conference: Part II

Protecting IP, international trade, innovation support and manufacturing challenges addressed at this year’s event.

Features | June 12, 2023 | By: Janet Preus

The North Carolina Defense Manufacturing Community Support Program (DMCSP), described at the 2023 Smart Fabrics Summitis an innovation ecosystem for smart textiles research, development and production in support of warfighter performance. Pictured is a U.S. Army Specialist directing a combat training exercise in May of this year in Germany. Photo: Spc. Joshua Zayas, U.S. Army. 

With a packed day-and-a-half, the Smart Fabric Summit in April 2023 provided plenty of information to process, ideas to incorporate and discussions to spark the imagination. Organized by the Advanced Textiles Association (ATA) and the Wilson College of Textiles, North Carolina State University (NC State) in Raleigh, N.C., student project presentations and tours of the College of Textiles facilities were also part of this year’s event. 

Trade priorities

Eric Sguazzin, international economist, U.S. Office of Apparel and Textiles (OTEXA) explained U.S. vice president Harris’s call to action in the Partnership for Central America, with a total regional investment of $1.6 billion. The goal is to create more jobs in this region, as well as to strengthen trade relationships. Specifically, Sguazzin noted two main goals: to open foreign markets and combat unfair trade; and to fully enforce U.S. trade laws, monitor compliance with agreements and use all available tools to hold other countries accountable. 

Unique to this administration is its efforts to advance a worker-centered trade policy, which is consistent with a U.S. strategy to address migration’s root causes, beyond just economic drivers. The effort incorporates a focus on good governance and labor rights that are also essential in supporting the success of private sector partners. 

Sguazzin also pointed out the advantages to businesses in U.S. sourcing of their materials. These include lower energy and transportation costs, quicker turnaround time, and meeting the consumer preference for Made in USA products. OTEXA offers a Made in USA Sourcing & Products Directory with more than 600 companies listed. 

Protecting intellectual property

With new ideas and products, comes the necessity of protecting one’s intellectual property (IP). Dhruv Agarwal is vice president – sustainability, innovation, development, with Kontoor Innovation, a company with major brands that include Wrangler and HD Lee. In a presentation titled “IP Best Practices When Going to Market,” he noted how ideas get to market, a process that includes identifying a need, problem, or innovation driver; ideation; and collaboration. 

His co-speaker, Cory Schug, partner with the Womble Bond Dickinson firm, elaborated on the role of collaboration. “If you don’t collaborate it can be hard to move your idea forward,” Schug says. “But with collaboration you need to be careful, so at least the intellectual property remains with you, so you own your idea.”

The key question is, “What do you need to do to make sure you don’t lose your rights to a patent?” he says. “Essentially, you’ve got one year in the U.S. once your idea is made public. It’s even less outside of the U.S.” 

Schug offered four main tips to avoid serious pitfalls. 

  1. Have a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that will keep ideas confidential and avoid public disclosure. “It could be generic,” Schug says, “But who is bound by this NDA? With whom is it going to be shared? Is it mutual or is it unilateral? 
  2. Have a consulting agreement, which assigns IP rights. “Make sure the proper people own it. That’s the biggest thing. It’s going to be a lot harder to get an agreement after you have a great product,” he adds.
  3. Conduct a freedom-to-operate patent search to be sure you own your intellectual property. “This is where you find out a lot of information you need to know about what you’re getting into, and you learn where there is room to put up your fence,” Schug says. 
  4. Analyze available and preferred forms of IP protection. This involves differentiating between a patent and a trade secret, where “there’s a fine line,” says Schug. Also, one should consider the usefulness of a trademark or copyright. “A contract can provide you significant protection, but not everything,” he says. “But there is a lot of protection that can be available that might be challenging to get in other ways.” 

In the end, if you are concerned about finding the competition, “Be confident and move fast,” Dhruv says. Both presenters agree that it’s smart to spend your money with innovation. “Don’t spend it all on patents,” Dhruv says. “You need to use your resources properly to get the product made and in the market.”

Innovation support

Steve McManus with RTI Innovation Advisors and Emil Runge, director of programs at the First Flight Venture Center, a North Carolina nonprofit science and technology business innovation hub, provided information on the opportunities available for collaboration and funding in the development of smart textiles and wearable technologies for the warfighter. 

In 2021 the Dept. of Defense’s (DoD) Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation awarded NC State’s Industry Expansion Solutions (IES) one of five grants under the Defense Manufacturing Community Support Program (DMCSP). This award is meant to support long-term community investments that will strengthen national security innovation and expand the capabilities of the defense manufacturing industrial ecosystem. A huge ecosystem of organizations, education and research institutions, and foundations is available to assist in the process, which includes:

  • Production innovation and ideation
  • Manufacturing innovation and modernization
  • Workforce development
  • Entrepreneurship and commercialization

Within each of these four areas there are systems in place to offer hands-on support. The presenters offered multiple examples of innovation success stories. 

PROpeller, a First Flight project, is described as “an entrepreneurial design thinking program … tailored to science- and technology-focused companies.” Runge says the program is meant to “meet the entrepreneur where they are in the process,” and to create partnerships that will work.

“If you’re a startup, you cannot do this alone. You need to partner to experience success,” he says. “You need a 90-day strategy and a long-term plan. That’s PROpeller in a nutshell.”

But he notes the difficulty of connecting with the investor community. “We need to have a more connected investor eco-system,” he says. “That’s one of the asks we have for you today. If there are manufacturers that you know about, please talk to us.”

Manufacturing challenges

On the second day, a panel discussed “The future of advanced manufacturing,” moderated by Dr. Ravi Chilukuri, innovation ecosystem director, Center for Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies (ASSIST) at NC State. Panelists, Carlos Jimenez, Technical Sales Director Fashion, with Lectra believes there is huge potential in specialized products—extreme sports, for example, and in specific sports such as kayaking or surfing. Beyond textiles for apparel, he says, “I don’t think there’s enough made of how we can use textiles for other products.”

Panelist Dr. Jesse Jur, director of technical program development, AFFOA, says, “We are 100 percent biased toward fabrics.” He pointed out that even with 20 technical staff, AFFOA’s main function is to advance the level of manufacturing, because, Jur says, “It often lags behind even the development level, so we support that. 

AFFOA also has a huge national ecosystem, with many participants that are not fabric companies or organizations, and the organization enables prototyping to be completed relatively quickly, he says. 

The over-arching development of new technologies generally starts off with a passive solution, Jur explained, “Then you start with the “edge spaces,” and then try to improve the efficiency for that particular product.”

For example, “We are at the end of passive solutions for thermal control, but we need to provide better cooling,” he says. “The consumer marketplace is progressing toward heated clothing. Workwear, also is where it’s going.”

The ability to manufacture key technologies is “holding the industry up,” Jur adds. “Graduate students are putting stuff together by hand, so you’re still doing job shopping and what you’re doing in the lab is not scalable, as you all know. We’re not even close to 4.0 in the industry.”

“We need to put more effort into the development of fabric,” Jimenez says, as opposed to just using what’s out there. “The key right now is to connect all the technologies.” The changes in terms of collaboration and making data available “have been huge in the last 10 years,” he adds. 

“The electronics and textile companies still need to sit down at the table and work together,” Jur says. “And we have to come up with low-cost solutions.”

Janet Preus is senior editor of Textile Technology Source. She can be reached at

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