Inteview by Michelle Hua @MadeWithGlove
Rachael Sterrett has 14 years’ experience in B2B marketing, communication and customer relationship management. She has worked with SMEs, in Higher Education, and in smart textile technology at Ohmatex, Denmark. During her time in Ohmatex she coordinated marketing and business development.
Since returning to the UK, Rachael continues to be involved in the development of smart garments and has a realistic view on industry trends. Rachael prepares well-researched strategic communications material for internal stakeholders and investors, marketing text for relevant target markets and transforms technical language and concepts into easy to read, professional communication.
What is your background and how did you end up working in the smart textiles industry?
My background is in marketing and project management. I have worked in or with small businesses for the last 15 years, either working in a marketing capacity within a business or working on programmes to assist small business owners with their growth and development. I moved to Denmark in 2011 and quite unexpectedly ended up working with Ohmatex, a small but very influential company working at the cutting edge of developing technologies and techniques for integrating electronics into textile. I had no previous background in this technology and had to learn fast… but I discovered that it is a challenging and exciting field to work in, and continues to be, this technology matures, and is beginning to have a significant impact on what the next generation of wearable tech will look like.
While I was working at Ohmatex, employees were given the opportunity to invest in the company. Having seen the commitment, energy, expertise and growing reputation of Ohmatex’s R&D, I had no hesitation in taking this opportunity. It is a great way to contribute to the growth and development of Ohmatex and the smart textile industry as a whole.
Having worked in Denmark where you are close to all the EU countries and companies in smart textiles, is there a difference to now being in the UK?
To be honest smart textiles is a global industry. Ohmatex has a strong network of research partners in Europe, including the UK. But in terms of commercial projects and partnerships I was working with companies all over the world in the US, Asia, Australia, Canada. I am now interested in learning more about what is happening in the UK, and expanding my network here, but it is important to keep a global perspective when considering smart textiles.
How are smart textiles related to wearable technology? Is there a difference?
Smart textiles are related to wearable technology when a garment is created that has the same type of functionality as a wearable device, but where the technology is fully integrated into the garment. Smart garments will ultimately become better at measuring vital body signals, than current wrist devices and the “device” element of the garment will become almost invisible to the user. The significant increase in consumer awareness of wearable technology in the last 3 years has given a huge boost to smart textiles. The large players in the wearable tech industry have realized that it is only a matter of time before smart garments are mature enough to be mass produced and have turned their attention to smart textile developments to ensure that they are ready to be part of this market. The miniaturisation of electronic components is becoming a key enabler in developing smart garments and partnerships between key tech players and smart textile developers are becoming the norm.
Wearable technology is also playing an instrumental role in preparing the consumer market for the concept of wearing a device capable of tracking multiple bio-signals and providing useful information to the wearer. This appetite for and understanding of wearable technology is paving the way for consumer adoption of smart garments, and as the reliability of some wearable devices is starting to be questioned, there will be even more readiness for the increased reliability which will be offered by smart garments, where sensors can be positioned much more accurately and not purely limited to the wrist as the source of data retrieval.
How did you learn about the smart textiles industry and how do you keep learning about it because it is constantly changing with new companies and new products out in the market?
One of my first tasks when I started working at Ohmatex was to conduct the research to update their well read white paper series on smart textiles. In order to do this, I had to quickly learn about the key concepts of smart garment creation – sensors, textile conductivity, connectivity, electronics encapsulation and integration to textile – and the key sectors where smart garments can add value – health, sports, military, protective clothing and fashion.
I learned a lot from my colleagues who were very patient in introducing me to this technology, and I conducted a wide online search, becoming familiar with many of the industry news sites: Innovation in Textiles (UK), Wearable Technologies (Germany), IFAI (USA). I followed campaigns on Kickstarter, Indiegogo and other crowd funding platforms.
I created Twitter lists of smart textile news and I watched with fascination as the newly launched Vandrico wearable tech database added new products on a weekly basis. I paid attention to promises made on crowd funding campaigns, and observed how well those promises were fulfilled! I discovered early on that official market research reports, whilst useful for quoting key statistics and predictions, provided only a very costly and very superficial coverage of the industry. Realistic reviews and analysis are much more valuable in the long run in really gaining an understanding of the industry.
Whilst at Ohmatex I was continually learning about the industry. I was dealing with enquiries from many sources and sectors, from large electronics companies to small startups, from Silicon Valley to Seoul. In 2014 I attended the IDTechEx show in Santa Clara which is a fantastic show for learning about the latest enabling technologies and attracting interest from the global players in the industry.
It is a fast paced and constantly changing industry and to stay up to date it is important to keep connected with key players, attend exhibitions and keep abreast of online industry news. As the amount of online information can be difficult to keep up with, I currently use news management apps and social media boards to tailor the news I receive to my own specific areas of interest.
What do you think will be the key trends in the wearable tech and smart textiles in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
At the start of 2017 there have been a lot of contradictory messages and predictions about the Wearable Technology device market, in relation to the future of wrist worn trackers and smart watches. The reliability of the wrist as the best place to measure biometrics is being questioned and there is a lot of talk about consumers falling out of love with their fitness trackers. These early wearable tech devices have certainly given consumers an awareness of the potential of wearable technology, but also of the limitations, and the development that is still needed to make them truly valuable. There is also a lot of talk about the need to make the technology invisible….to integrate it seamlessly into garments so that wearables becoming “disappearables”.
I think it is interesting that Jawbone is leaving the consumer space to focus on healthcare providers. When I first got involved in this industry in 2013, smart textile players who had started out with the aim of developing health devices, were switching their focus to consumer fitness products. Sensoria (smart sock for running) and Hexoskins (smart shirt for athletes) are two companies that initially had a health care focus.
When I started researching this field I got the impression that this move from health care to fitness products was a strategic move. A smart fitness garment could be brought to market much more quickly than a health care product, demonstrate the company’s capabilities and ultimately create awareness of the potential of this technology to meet health care needs. And now we are coming full circle. Wearable tech players have developed devices, created consumer awareness, and are now intent on taking the technology to the health care market, where they hope that ultimately the gains will be greater.
The next challenge will be getting buy-in from health care professionals that this technology is the way forward for enhancing patient control over their own treatment of critical conditions, using devices that enable them to more accurately and regularly monitor their health.
In the long term I think the most successful applications of these technologies will be where they are meeting real needs. Ben Wood, CCS Insight, and wearable enthusiast argues that smart watches are “a solution that’s looking for a problem”. The real growth will come with wearable tech that addresses real needs, rather than trying to create a need, where the leap is made from accessory to necessity.
In addition to the health care sector, another sector that has an identified real need for data is in the area of professional elite sports. The development of garments which can monitor more sophisticated biometrics such as motion sensing and muscle endurance indicators are beginning to get the attention of leading sports companies. With the right amount of investment in this field it is only a matter of time before athletes will have access to increasingly sophisticated technology to improve their understanding of their performance. These products will in time trickle down to consumer sports, but initially the cost will keep them as elite sports products.
Where fashion is concerned, the problem caused by the culture of fast, disposable fashion means that the increase in cost that a smart garment brings to a fashion item (e.g. lighting, heating, capacity to harvest energy) does not yet make it viable for there to be significant growth in the fashion industry, beyond statement, custom-made items. In time these technologies will eventually filter down and become affordable for consumers, but in the short term they will be for the high end fashion market, rather than the high street.
Another area which personally fascinates me and which I am convinced could have very interesting potential for lighting in textiles, is textile architecture, where outdoor fabric structures are being created for public spaces and visual impact. These could be greatly enhanced with the introduction of integrated lighting features, supplied by companies such as Ohmatex or Forster Rohner.
Is the #WomenInTech initiative important to you?
I met Michelle Hua, CEO of Made with Glove, whilst at Ohmatex. Since returning to the UK I have been impressed with the work she has been doing in co-founding Women of Wearables. It is a great initiative in raising awareness, connecting women in the industry and giving the next generation of women the opportunity of working “hands on” with wearable tech. I have thoroughly enjoyed being a volunteer on the STEM workshops they have been running and look forward to attending future events they have planned, as a way of staying connected with this industry in the UK, and developing my own network of women in tech and female entrepreneurs. I have got the bug now, and I am looking for new opportunities to continue to market, research and contribute to companies producing smart garments.
Have you experienced challenges in the industry and if so, how did you overcome those challenges?
I have become aware that women do have something unique to bring to this industry, that may be overlooked if wearables are developed predominantly by men. When designing products and prototypes it is easy to get bogged down by the question “How are we going to make this work”? I think women are good at remembering to also ask, “Does this make sense to the user? Does this add value? Is this comfortable and fashionable? Is it affordable?”
As an outsider to technology I had to learn a whole new language to understand this industry (and I am still learning). I became used to not always completely following the engineer talk. However I was amused when one day I sat in a meeting with a senior engineer and a female wearable tech fashion designer. She was showing us her company’s latest innovation which I instantly thought was very practical and fashionable. To my amusement, halfway through the meeting, my colleague had to stop her to ask what the product actually was, something he hadn’t quite been able to figure out. It was a futurist hand bag with integrated solar panels and charging capability! That is when I realized that men and women do have different perspectives when it comes to the development of wearable technology. It is not a gender neutral industry, and shouldn’t be!
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to women in the wearable tech/smart textiles industry?
If you enjoy working in this field, stick at, stay with it. Work hard and don’t be afraid to ask about what you don’t know, it is the only way to learn.
There is so much still to be done to develop products that will go way beyond wrist worn devices, in the value that they can add to users lives. And remember that whilst you are working alongside male colleagues you may have some insight to bring that they may have otherwise overlooked.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and smart textiles?
One of the first women I met in the smart textiles industry was Cath Rogan, founder of Smart Garment People, UK. She attended a workshop at Ohmatex during my first week there, and as we got talking I realized that she was from the North of England, close to where I lived before moving to Denmark. She is very well regarded in the industry, well connected and has lots of interesting projects on the go. I have kept up with her since then, enjoying her insightful conference reviews and panel hosting at several conferences I have attended. She has a very realistic view of the industry and has her finger on the pulse of the direction it is moving.
Two other women that I met whilst in Santa Clara with Ohmatex are Trish Hayes-Danitz and Meg Grant. With different backgrounds and perspectives they were both extremely enthusiastic about the potential for creating robust, well connected smart garments. At the time they were working in the wearable division of TE Connectivity, and have since both moved on to other companies, utilizing their skills and knowledge of electronic textile integration to create innovative smart textile applications.
Linkedin: Rachael Sterrett