In my view, the concept of stretchable electronics that can be integrated with clothing and the human body could bring revolutionary technologies and spawn new industries. I’m a journalist working for Physics World magazine and I’ve recently produced a short film on this topic, which I’m delighted to share with TMR+. The video report takes you inside the headquarters of one of the most exciting companies in this burgeoning technology area — a start-up called MC10 based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
One of the company co-founders is John Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a pioneer in the field of flexible electronics. In the film Rogers talks about how his interest in the research emerged from the observation that all known forms of biology are soft, elastic and curvilinear, whereas existing forms of electronics are rigid planar and brittle. “As a result, if you want to integrate electronics with biology – with human skin or tissue – you have severe challenges in a mechanics mismatch and a geometrical form mismatch,” he says.
Rogers talks about how MC10 has overcome these mismatches by developing a printing process that allows devices to be built on rigid wafers before being lifted off in thin formats and then printed onto rubber substrates. This innovation is enabling the company to develop professional and consumer products based on integrated electronics that can flex and reshape in a range of different environments.
The film profiles one of the company’s products called the Reebok CHECKLIGHT, developed by MC10 in partnership with the sports equipment giant whose global headquarters is also in Massachusetts. It’s a type of skullcap that can be worn by athletes and provides an indication of the danger of head impacts, through the combination of an accelerometer and a gyroscope integrated into flexible materials. The product has an interesting backstory about the concerns among youth athletes and trainers about the risk of serious injuries. For example, in sports such as American football, there tends to be something of a hero culture whereby players will respond to head collisions by saying “I’m fine coach”, even if they’re really not. The Reebok CHECKLIGHT is designed to provide an objective assessment of head impact in that scenario.
We recorded the film over a couple of days at the end of last year, when I visited the MC10 headquarters with a small film crew. The experience certainly lived up to my expectations of what a dynamic start-up in this part of the world would be like. Alongside the labs and the business spaces, the office also had many classic start-up accessories such as running machines and a range of gourmet coffee on tap. Perhaps these mod cons go some way to explaining the friendly and co-operative nature of the MC10 people we interviewed. For example, one of the co-founders Roozbeh Ghaffari was more than happy to model the Reebok CHECKLIGHT for us by popping it onto his own head without a moment’s hesitation. From my experience – particularly with British academics – this type of thing normally takes a bit of persuasion!
Equally amenable was Benjamin Schlatka, the VP of Business Development who appears in the film talking about his personal interest in the products of MC10. As a parent of three children his interest was piqued by the idea of a wearable sensor that could measure the temperature and respiration of a child while it sleeps. Schlatka goes on to talk about the key business developments in the history of MC10, which was established in 2008 after John Rogers established a connection with an entrepreneur in the Boston area.
Rather than me spoiling the film anymore, I recommend you give it a watch!
Note – John Rogers is a founding board member of the journal Translational Materials Research (TMR).
Related reading on the web –
Nanoarray patch takes your temperature to millikelvin precision (nanotechweb.org)
Silk helps make bio-integrated electronics (nanotechweb.org)