Interview by Michelle Hua @MadewithGlove
Clare Simpson is Product Director for Smartlife Inc Ltd in Manchester. Clare graduated from Durham University with a BSc in Psychology and from UMIST with an MSc in Marketing. She has been working professionally with information technology since 2004, firstly as an IT project manager and latterly as an insight analyst. This background, combined with a passion for health, fitness and wellbeing, was the perfect foundation for a career in wearable technology. Clare ensures Smartlife’s sensors, electronics, and garments meet the company’s high standards of comfort, discretion and accuracy, and is responsible for developing actionable insight to help people to live better, every day.
Clare, what is your role at Smartlife and how have you evolved into your role as the Product Director?
As a small team of just 9, our job titles don’t mean much. My responsibilities for the product range from designing garments, testing performance, analysing test data, developing actionable insight, and guiding app development. On top of this I do all of the company’s marketing, and I support our CEO, Martin Ashby, in pretty much anything that needs doing, from financial forecasting and bookkeeping to business development. The list is endless!!
You’ve always been interested in maths and studied it at university as well as psychology and marketing which led you to the data analyst roles. Did you know it would lead to the role you are in now and how important is it to have a range of different skills and attributes?
I had no idea I’d be working for a start up in such an exciting industry. Before Smartlife I was an Insight Analyst in banking and Head of Analytics for a call centre! It couldn’t be more different. I’ve always been pretty versatile though and I think that’s a really valuable quality in a small business. You need to be able to throw yourself at whatever needs doing and find creative ways to get the job done.
Since working at Smartlife, you are now even more interested in health and fitness and solidifying it to becoming a personal trainer. Do you believe this is where the wearables market is and will be for the future?
Team sports, personal training, group training, they’re all obvious use cases for wearable technology and that’s where it’ll start but, as garments and sensors continue to become more comfortable and electronics become more discreet, there will be more opportunities in healthcare, workwear and wellbeing. Wearables will just become a part of everyday life.
What products has Smartlife developed and what products are you working on now?
Smartlife’s products are our patented textile sensors and electronic brain. We license our technology to brands and manufacturers so they can launch their own smart apparel. We’re currently working on projects in the sport, military, healthcare, and medical sectors. The first product to launch with our tech is most likely to be for runners. We have developed prototype garments to demonstrate how our technology works, these include a compression t-shirt for men and a sports bra for women, which you can view on our website: https://www.smartlifeinc.com/markets-1/
How many members are there in your team?
We’re a team of 9, plus 1 vacancy (http://bit.ly/2i63os2). The team is made up of 4 DSP, firmware, and electronics engineers, 3 in the commercial team (Martin Ashby - CEO, Mark Pedley - founder, and myself), and 2 Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) Associates from the University of Salford and University of Kent. Our Kent KTP Associate joins us in October and I’m very excited because we’ll double our female head count!
What is the culture of the team like at Smartlife?
We are curious, courageous, and thoroughly committed to Smartlife’s success. We work extremely hard but we play hard and have fun too. The atmosphere in the office is relaxed and informal with no hierarchy to get in the way of progress!
Wearables is a new industry so if people want to work in wearables, how can they get into the industry? Is it learning by doing which you have done and what key characteristics do you look for when people want to join a company like Smartlife?
Yes, the wearables industry is new, but the required skills and knowledge already exist in established industries. Wearables brings garments and electronics together in a new way so it’s the ability to think creatively and apply traditional skills in a new context that is probably most important. Our tech team performs, not just because they are skilled coders and engineers, but because they have a “can do” attitude and use creativity to find solutions to challenges they've never been faced with before. I'd say these attributes are just as important as good qualifications and experience in a particular discipline.
What has been the biggest challenge working in smart textiles and how did you overcome them?
Some of the team have been around since the days when the tech didn’t work and there was no money in the bank. The company survived because of the team’s drive and commitment even when times were really tough. When faced with a new technical issue, we searched tirelessly until we found the solution. When something needed doing that no-one in the team had ever done before, we figured out how. When there was no money and no pay, we carried on doing what we could because we had an amazing product worth fighting for.
What has been the team’s biggest achievement?
I’d say there are two significant achievements worth celebrating. Firstly we have created a wearable that is just like a ‘normal’ garment. Not only does it accurately measure biophysical signals, but it’s more comfortable and discreet than any other solution available on the market. It’s comfortable enough to be worn all day every day so it has applications across many markets, not just sport, including workwear and healthcare. Secondly, our Directors have done a fantastic job of securing investment to accelerate our product development. We have many exciting opportunities that we are now able to progress.
What trends do you see in wearables in the next 5 years?
The fitness and health markets are booming. People are hungry for information about themselves and the actions they can take to improve their physical and mental wellbeing. While the latest wearables make elite and medical level data accessible outside of the lab or surgery, there are still barriers to mass adoption. If it’s not that there’s one more device to remember to charge and wear, or a bulky design that interferes with everyday activities, it’s affordability, or a lack of understanding of how the information can be of benefit. As the industry overcomes these barriers then more people will integrate wearables into their everyday lives.
What advice do you have for people wanting to work in wearables?
Do it because you love it because there’s no substitute for passion. Also, understand who your target market are, what they really need and will be willing to adopt. Otherwise you’ll end up creating a brilliant product that no-one actually wants to buy!
Who are your three inspirational people in wearables and smart textiles?
There are so many inspirational people in wearables and smart textiles that it would be too difficult to choose just 3. Instead, I’ll highlight 3 qualities I find inspiring in women in the industry:
Anyone who’s had an idea and was brave enough to do whatever it took to bring that idea to life. It takes huge amounts of courage, resilience, and even a bit of crazy to be an entrepreneur!
Women who are comfortable being a woman in the workplace. Those who use their femininity to their advantage and don’t feel the need to hide it to fit into a workplace dominated by men.
Women (and men) who aren’t afraid to challenge societal norms in pursuit of a rewarding career and/or fulfilling life.
This interview was conducted by Michelle Hua. Based in Manchester UK, Michelle is the founder and CEO of Made With Glove and Manchester Ambassador of Women of Wearables. Visit www.michellehua.co.uk or follow Michelle on Twitter @MadeWithGlove.