Dreaming (and sewing) up a competitive edge for Team USA
Be honest. How many times while watching the 2022 Olympics did you contemplate what it might be like to compete at the highest level of sport? Don’t worry, we all do it. Folks across the globe, including many who have likely never run a mile or strapped on a pair of skis in their lives, imagined themselves standing atop a medal podium in February.
It’s fun to pretend, but the reality behind that achievement is almost unfathomable for most of us. We know elite athletes spend an incredible number of hours working with coaches, evaluating past performance, and making adjustments, all in the hopes of shaving milliseconds off a downhill ski run time, or putting a little more power behind a hockey shot.
These athletes will do almost anything to gain a competitive edge. So what if it could be as simple as wearing a piece of clothing?
That’s the future that Early Charm company, Materic, dreams of and is actively working toward with its piezoelectric yarn product. This yarn is made of electrospun nanofibers, and generates electricity when it is twisted or stretched. Among the future opportunities Materic sees for this yarn is producing smart garments designed for athletes, to help them improve performance and prevent injuries.
Piezoelectric materials, or those that produce electric currents when exposed to stress, are already widely used in technologies ranging from medical ultrasound equipment to cell phone speakers. Materic is doing something new by turning this tech into soft, flexible nanofiber yarns that could be woven into textiles to produce smart garments. In principle, when an athlete wears the garments made with piezoelectric yarn, each of their movements would generate electrical signals and allow for continuous performance monitoring during any sport.
For example, data generated from the garments may show how minute changes in a downhill skier’s stance affect their velocity. This kind of detailed information would prove extremely valuable for any pro athlete, especially those competing at the level where top performers are separated by only fractions of a second or tenths of a point.
Piezoelectric garments could also deliver health information, to show if an athlete is injured or close to injuring themselves. For example, piezoelectric data could show if an athlete is putting too much stress on their joints during a certain move. It may also help athletes determine whether a pain or strain they feel is due to some yet undetected injury, which could help them stave off an injury or avoid making one even worse.
Applying wearable monitoring tech to athletics is not a new concept. Some athletes already use wearable sensors (like those in a smart watch) to track things such as heart rate or blood oxygen levels during training. Others also use video and motion capture technology to track and analyze their movements in a controlled environment. But external tech and hardware-oriented wearables are limited in their usefulness, especially in real-world conditions.
Picture an Olympic skier – who would likely be wearing performance-oriented clothing during competition anyway. If those clothes just happened to be made with piezoelectric yarn, they could generate real-time data on the skier’s performance, without them having to worry about strapping on extra gizmos or bulky, tech-laden gear.
Materic may still be several years off from outfitting Team USA in gear made of piezoelectric yarn, but it’s something to forward to.
Author: Morgan Eichensehr
Bio: Morgan Eichensehr is a technical writer for Early Charm. She tells the stories behind the science being done at the venture studio's portfolio companies.