Intelligent Textiles: Asha Peta Thompson
The accidental entrepreneur on securing a major contract with the MoD – and why great innovation sells itself
When Asha Peta Thompson tells her contemporaries her vocation is weaving and knitting, “most people imagine me sitting in a rocking chair, knitting, on a porch”. In reality, she is the co-founder of one of the most innovative businesses of her generation.
The brains behind a scientific breakthrough which looks set to revolutionise international military operations forever, Thompson used her training in constructed textiles to create a conductive fabric weave that, when squeezed, forms an electric switch – allowing power and data to be transmitted wirelessly through cloth.
For a soldier, this means cumbersome wires could be eliminated from their packs, with power transmitted through their uniform instead. And there are countless other commercial applications.
The reluctant entrepreneur
However, this is not the path she chose. On the contrary, Thompson claims: “I've always been arty, never sciency.” When her degree tutor told her she was best suited to textile construction, she disagreed – and even after graduating, she recalls: “I never thought I was any good.”
But others could see the potential of this reluctant entrepreneur and Thompson was scouted for the prestigious Masters programme at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Here, Thompson was challenged to focus her research and she began work in an autistic school, looking at how she could use textiles to impart the National Curriculum to children with special educational needs.
This led to a research grant from Brunel University's Design for Life initiative, where she met Dr Stan Swallow, a Brunel lecturer with a background in engineering. They could not have come from more different worlds, but it was a union which was to define the rest of her career, as the two went on to become business partners.
“At the beginning we spoke different languages,” Thompson recalls. “However, we've got such complimentary skills and Stan and I are both incredibly stubborn, so wouldn't be defeated. We created a language that both of us could understand – a hybrid of textile and electronic terminology.”
After their initial eureka moment, when they envisaged their revolutionary weave and its potential, the unconventional pair filed patents as fast as they could (they have 28 to date – one for each of the territories they work in), despite having not yet developed a prototype of the product. “We didn't have anything to prove the principle worked but we just knew it would,” Thompson says.
A private grant through the university and the construction of a custom loom in Switzerland proved their judgement correct. However, just as the project was finding its feet, the Design for Life centre lost its funding and Thompson and Swallow were suddenly left without a research home – and a £25,000 bill if they wanted to buy out the university's patent rights.
At the same time, Thompson went to Germany to showcase a range of prototypes – including a full, fabric QWERTY keyboard – at the Techtextil show. The remarkable products caught the eye of an Australian government initiative, which was on the lookout for new ways to market wool, and an ensuing partnership helped secure the patents.
However, the road was not clear yet and, in another spell of bad luck, Australian Wool Innovation had a change of board, which chose not to proceed with the joint venture. “Having bought the patents from the university, Stan and I were effectively left on our own,” Thompson recalls. “That's how Intelligent Textiles was born.”
Fortunately, there has been no shortage of demand for the business's multi-functional ‘flexible circuit board', which has been adapted to create a portfolio that includes heated gloves, iPod remote controllers and heating elements in wetsuits. However, Thompson says her one regret is that she and Swallow didn't focus earlier – citing one lengthy R&D project with a major high street brand, which then only ordered one unit, leaving Intelligent Textiles with a five-figure bill.
Thompson jokes that the deficit was the equivalent cost of her and Swallow completing MBAs – and provided them with the same level of business education. She adds, “We got pulled in a lot of different directions by people having good ideas for our technology. But it really only found its niche when we found that it was solving a need.”
Meeting a niche
That moment came when a connection through their weaver led Thompson to exhibit her innovation in Canada. It was jumped upon by the Canadian military as the missing piece to the puzzle in their development of a 21st-century soldier system. For the next three years Intelligent Textiles worked tirelessly to prove that USB2 power and data could be transmitted around a soldier's uniform.
The contract proved so worthwhile, that Thompson was invited to present to NATO in Brussels. Afterwards, she was pulled aside by an influential member of the British MOD, who apologised that her innovation had not been spotted on its home turf, saying he could not believe such remarkable British engineering had been presented to him by Canada.
Soon after, the MOD's Centre for Defence Enterprise* – which provides a platform for small companies with exciting technologies – granted Intelligent Textiles funding to develop a system which could lighten the burden for British soldiers. Thompson relished the challenge and worked to prove that power could be transmitted from a backpack, through a uniform, up to a helmet and down to a glove, to potentially power a weapon – eradicating the need for wires completely.
Yet, despite Thompson's ground-breaking work for the MOD, she says other associations have had trouble accepting that the innovations come from a female business partner. She recalls an interview for an Australian radio programme, in which the presenter assumed that Swallow was the brains behind the breakthrough:
“They wanted to speak to Stan about the science but he said ‘actually, Asha invented it',” Thompson remembers. “I'm seen very much as a designer rather than a scientist.”
Indeed, even among Thompson's discipline peers, there is some ignorance about the nature of her work: “One of the problems we have with the fashion industry is they still promote [our work] as a craft, rather than a complicated exact science – just because we do it on wooden machines. There's a lot more to it than that.”
However, Intelligent Textiles has not had the same experience with the MOD. “We've found working with the military incredibly easy,” Thompson says. “We're talking and reassessing frequently and there's also working groups that they invite industry to come and sit on, so we can understand the bigger picture of what they hope to do.”
Recommending the experience to other entrepreneurs, Thompson adds: “If small businesses are interested in working with the MOD and they already have IP, they might be put off by thinking that they want to own the IP. In fact the beauty of working with the MOD is they don't – they just want access to it.”
Secrets of success
Reflecting upon her own success with the MOD and other clients, Thompson highlights the power of fantastic technology in capturing people's imagination. She recalls pitches in which she thought, “They really don't understand what we're telling them – that this is a piece of fabric that you can touch and it will know where it's been touched.
“Then you'll get a phone call two or three hours later and they'll be on the train saying, ‘Crikey that's a keyboard that you showed us and it was a piece of fabric! Do you know what you could do with that?'”
Thompson certainly does, and is currently pitching for projects for which she will be up against some of the biggest businesses in the world. A key philosophy of her success, she says, is to never give anyone anything for free, because they won't value it.
“Even if it's £500 for a sample – at least put a nominal price on it and make sure they pay for it upfront,” she suggests.
It has not been an easy road (Thompson claims she has taken two holidays in the last 10 years) but her courage to take the step into a world unknown has truly paid off, and Intelligent Textiles is poised to take a slice of the annual $28bn (£18bn) global soldier system budget in the next few years. Not bad for an accidental entrepreneur.
*The Centre for Defence Enterprise is aligned with the government's Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), which connects government departments in need of innovative solutions to businesses in the UK who have the potential to solve them.