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This MIT-Backed Startup Wants to Track Athlete Performance Through Clothing

Nextiles, a materials science and manufacturing company focused on creating “smart textiles,” is entering the sports and performance market to offer smart thread technology designed to capture and track a wearer’s biometric and biomechanics data through their garments, be it apparel and footwear.

To create this smart thread technology, Nextiles embeds sensors within fabrics such as sportswear. The textile manufacturer blends traditional sewing techniques with printed circuit boards, which are used to support the flow of electricity in most electronic devices, to make the flexible material including the sensor technology.

Nextiles, which is backed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), says its fabrics allow for complete biomechanic and biometric sensing captured on one platform, requiring no straps, rings, wraps or clunky attachments that may only capture partial data or impede comfort.

Through a patent-protected manufacturing process, Nextiles uses traditional sewing machines to incorporate the sensors within common threads, such as cotton, polyester, spandex and nylon. The threads are semi-conductive—meaning that limited electricity can pass through them—which enables Nextiles to measure mechanical changes within the fabric from multiple data points.

Nextiles aims to differentiate its data analytics suite by providing Newtonian measurements such as force, bending, stretching, velocity and pressure through its fabrics. This enables the startup to offer athletes and teams data on torque, power, fatigue, strain, and much more. The fabric also can capture traditional measurements including direction, speed and distance by combining force data with inertial measurement unit technology.

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The company provides clients with APIs and SDKs to stream data via Bluetooth in real time and enables them to store data locally and in the cloud.

Through a patent-protected manufacturing process, Nextiles uses traditional sewing machines to incorporate the sensors within common threads, such as cotton, polyester, spandex and nylon.

“Modern sewing technology is almost 2,000 years old, but the industry in recent decades has been overlooked because our society believes we maximized its utility,” George Sun, CEO of Nextiles, said in a statement. “However, at Nextiles, we are rekindling textile innovation, and more importantly doing it in what was once the sewing capital of the world, New York. One of the reasons we value fabrics over traditional circuit board technologies is our philosophy of building from the bottom-up—thread by thread. Our industry has coveted smartphones so much that we have grown to become content in wearing them as watches and straps. Rather, we should instead endow such powers to what we are most familiar with. Revolutionize our clothes, instead of miniaturizing computer chips, by building on top of generation and time-tested fabric materials.”

While Nextiles is leveraging apparel as its first platform, the company sees broad technological applications and is working with several OEMs in various business verticals, such as automotive, military and fitness.

“If it can be sewn, it can be smart. To date, we have several ongoing projects and collaborations in sports performance quantifying movement which would otherwise be impossible with camera vision or accelerometers, because we literally form around the 3D complexities of human movement,” Sun said. “With that, we’ve also seen interest from OEMs in augmenting their current product offerings by taking their soft-good products and pushing them into the IoT world. I am excited to share this technology with our manufacturers and athletic partners because there is an internal gratification among our team when someone can own their own data through their own clothes.”

Nextiles was founded in 2018 while Sun, a trained biological and electrical engineer, was finalizing his PhD in biomaterials at MIT. While attending MIT’s Media Lab, Sun was recruited to lead the embedded engineering team at Puma, with a focus on incorporating sensors into footwear.

Nextiles Embeds Sensor Tech Within Fabrics to Track Performance Data
A knee sleeve including the Nextiles smart thread technology, designed to measure force, bending, stretching, velocity and pressure.

Sun’s time at Puma inspired him to try at creating a superior form factor for sensors, and patenting a new technique to sew sensors directly into the footwear fabric.

MIT funded the smart fabric technology in Nextiles’ early development stage, and selected the company to go through its Delta-V entrepreneur accelerator program. Nextiles also joined the Newlab community in Brooklyn, which hosts 170 members applying transformative technologies such as robotics, A.I., and material science, to transform areas including health care, the environment, media and infrastructure. Upon joining Newlab, Sun moved the Nextiles headquarters to Brooklyn’s Navy Yard.

The factory, which was a Navy Yard building during WWI and WWII, now hosts Nextiles’ core engineering team. Nextiles also maintains a cut-and-sew studio in New Jersey and an industrial design team based in Manhattan.

MIT is Nextiles’ first investor, and led the funding of its 2020 seed round. Other investors in the undisclosed round include senior executives from multiple industries such as sports, media, retail, medicine, technology, finance and professional athletes.

“We are extremely grateful to have welcomed several individual investors from diverse backgrounds with incredible experience and networks who all share our vision of a more connected future,” said John Peters, chief business officer of Nextiles in a statement. “The diversity of our cap table reflects the diversity of our technology and we look forward to innovating alongside current and future partners in a variety of business verticals.”