The Very Model of a Modern Approach

LifeLab’s CoolLife unisex t-shirt.

Textile technologies for performance apparel seem to pop up at a rapid pace these days from academic labs and tech startups. And that’s a good thing.

But the road to commercialization—and ultimately profitability—relies on a number of factors: proof of concept, partnerships, and an accurate reading of the zeitgeist, to name a few.

With sustainability top-of-mind for consumers, both now and in the foreseeable future, textile and apparel brands are focusing on combining performance and sustainability in a coherent and accessible product and message.

Created by Stanford University scientists Yi Cui and his partner Meng Sui in 2020, LifeLabs De-sign, Inc. is one such company that appears to be ticking all the boxes.

Please Adjust your Thermostat

Based on years of research on energy and the environment by Dr. Cui, LifeLabs recently launched two thermally-regulating textile technologies, CoolLife and WarmLife, in a capsule collection of clean-lined, unisex apparel.

Recent statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reveal the enormous amount of energy consumed to regulate our indoor environments. Electricity use for cooling the interior of buildings by the U.S. residential and commercial sectors consumes about 10 percent of our total electricity consumption. In commercial buildings, HVAC energy consumption ac-counts for more than 40 percent of total energy use.

The concept behind LifeLabs’ technologies is that by using our apparel to moderate the body’s temperature and comfort level, the amount of energy used to cool or heat building interiors can be reduced. The challenge: To find apparel textiles that could provide thermal regulation.

“The PE cooling textile technology we invented is transparent to the body’s infra-red radiation yet maintains excellent air breathability and visible opaqueness.” – Yi Cui, Stanford University scientist.

The breakthrough came in 2016 when Cui’s team discovered that the polymer polyethylene (PE) could lower the body temperature by allowing the body’s own infrared radiation to escape.

“In order to cool the human body, it would be effective if the textile could allow the body’s in-frared radiation to go out without obstruction,” explains Cui. “The PE cooling textile technology we invented is transparent to the body’s infrared radiation yet maintains excellent air breath-ability and visible opaqueness. Its cooling effect on our body is sensational.”

Why Polyethylene?

Researchers and textile scientists have discovered PE’s useful properties. It’s an inexpensive, lightweight, nanoporous material familiar as plastic bags, plastic wrap, or cling film. Because it is transparent to infrared radiation, it lowers skin temperature by 4˚ Fahrenheit, compared to cotton.

The giant step was transforming PE into a comfortable apparel textile. Like most thermoplastic polymers, PE can be manipulated through physics and chemistry to impart desired qualities, in this case becoming more hydrophilic and less sensitive to heat.

The inaugural CoolLife textile, a cool-to-the-touch knit, is the result of “a network of proprietary partnerships,” according to outdoor apparel industry veteran Scott Mellin, who came aboard LifeLabs in April 2021 as CEO.

Pushing New Frontiers in Sustainability

Mellin points out that besides helping to reduce the use of energy for indoor cooling, PE textiles require less energy to manufacture and dye, are easy to wash and dry, and are recyclable at end-of-life. Future development of PE sewing thread and a coordinating elastomeric are circu-larity-based goals which would enable mono-material CoolLife garments.

Available in sleepwear and loungewear on the company’s website, CoolLife is just the tip of the iceberg. LifeLabs has also developed a technology for WarmLife apparel textiles.

Vapor deposition of a 50 nanometer coating of aluminum (“half a paperclip’s worth,” according to Mellin) on any substrate creates a fabric that reflects the body’s infrared radiation, creating warmth without affecting the textile’s comfort or breathability.

The first WarmLife outerwear garments combine an rPET base and a biobased PU laminate, sandwiching a thin layer of insulation. The lightweight, packable pieces use 30 percent less in-sulation to supply an equivalent CLO value.

The Rarity of Successful Commercialization

LifeLabs’ fast track to startup and commercialization is a rarity in the university world. A recent article about university research from The Hechinger Report revealed that U.S. colleges and universities are producing a surprisingly small proportion of the nation’s patents and start-ups.

“Academicians are absolutely clueless about what needs to be done to make a project attrac-tive to industry,” said Daria Mochly-Rosen, professor of chemistry and systems biology at Stan-ford University.

But after receiving their first patents in 2016, LifeLabs put together a materials team. In 2021, after writing a business strategy, the company raised $7M in funding in a single round.

Mellin has been forthright in positioning the fledgling as “reimagining the efficacy of textiles to improve the human condition” by pushing new frontiers in sustainability.

Beyond Apparel

Mellin describes LifeLabs as a D2C brand, but says the company is selling fabrics “to select global companies to help consumers reduce their personal carbon footprint.” Plans are to de-velop into other markets, such as workwear, footwear, home products, and mobility.

EVs are one example, where cooling textiles could reduce the use of a vehicle’s HVAC system and increase driving range. And while not yet commercial, CoolLife bedding has received rave reviews in trials.

“We’ll be introducing new classifications, using science and our deep understanding of the global marketplace to drive solutions,” promises Mellin.

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Jan 24, 2022


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