How a washable, heat-resistant battery developed in Worthington could revolutionize a variety of industries
In 2022, the batteries that power our devices are unrecognizable from those we lived with in the not-too-distant past. Wireless power packs a greater punch than ever, fits into the smallest pocket and lasts as long as we need. Now, a central Ohio startup is integrating that level of battery technology into smart clothing to create connected clothes that can resist heat and be run through the washing machine.
“Our mission is to develop and commercialize a flexible, washable, safe battery that can integrate seamlessly with smart clothing,” Dr. Suvankar Sengupta, CEO and President of FlexEnergy LLC. “Some other companies are developing flexible batteries, but ours can go through a standard washer cycle. It’s also safer because it’s resistant to high temperatures. Right now, to use smart clothing, you have to put a brick-style battery in your pocket. It’s not practical or fashionable. But our battery is seamlessly integrated into the clothing. It will feel like a piece of clothing, and you won’t realize that you have a battery in your clothes.”
While standard battery technology has grown in leaps and bounds over the last few decades, the industry around smart clothing is still relatively new. That puts companies like FlexEnergy in high demand. The United States Air Force has even taken notice of the Worthington-based company, signing a patent license agreement through Dayton’s Air Force Research Laboratory. The company also won a $100,000 grant from the Ohio Third Frontier Technology Validation and Start-up Fund to help move their exciting tech forward.
“Smart clothing has really only been evolving for the last five years or so,” Sengupta said. “That means there’s a need for clothing that can interact with itself, the environment and the person who is wearing it. The Department of Defense and others are in pursuit of that type of clothing. There are lots of sensors that have been developed for smart clothing, but we learned that a washable battery is missing. That led us to develop this flexible battery that can withstand high temperatures.”
Smart clothes and the tech that empowers them may be a new market, but it’s a rapidly growing one. The field is projected to be a $5.3 billion market by 2024, providing a gigantic incentive to be part of the first wave of new smart clothing tech. And the Air Force is far from the only organization that could benefit.
“This has tremendous potential,” Sengupta said. “It will basically digitize clothing, and it has a wide range of applications. Medical smart clothing could allow for monitoring of patients. Obviously, it has tremendous potential with the military industry. Athletes can use smart clothing to monitor specific muscle movement in training. We also believe that even the fashion industry has huge potential by integrating different lights or changing colors. It will open up an entirely new market.”
Being on the cutting-edge of the new frontier of smart clothing technology is energizing for Sengupta and his team. And that doesn’t just come from the business potential of FlexEnergy, it comes from the impact they could make on a variety of industries that are in need of disruption.
“It’s very exciting for us, because we’re working on new and evolving technology,” he said. “We believe that we can make a big impact on a lot of really useful industries. In the health care industry, for example, patients’ status needs to be monitored. Caregivers could constantly receive updates right from patients’ clothing, which can immediately send that information. My parents are all the way in India, and I’m always worried about what is happening and whether they’re OK. Thinking of them makes me very excited about this technology. I think the sky is the limit for what it can do.”
FlexEnergy ties together the best of the Ohio startup community. Based in central Ohio, working with the State’s Air Force sector, growing through help of The Entrepreneur Center in Dayton and receiving support from the Ohio Third Frontier, the company is proof that the Buckeye State offers everything that a growing startup requires.
“We’ve seen Columbus grow tremendously, and it’s become one of the top smart cities in the world,” Sengupta said. “We’re seeing it developing so fast, especially in battery development. And when we commercialize and start to manufacture, we’ll need the real estate capabilities and tax benefits that put Ohio ahead of many states. It’s cost-effective here, we’re in close proximity to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and we have great mentors at The Entrepreneur Center in Dayton. There’s a lot of value in Ohio.”