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99 Percent

Meet a creator of high-tech, electrically active fabrics who shows plenty of scrap.
July 1, 2004

If genius is 99 percent perspiration (and 1 percent inspiration), then entrepreneurs surely walk the fine line that separates the Einsteins of the world from those poor sweaty souls who practice yoga in saunas. The archetypal startup is the lone inventor in a basement pursuing his or her passion with relentless energy. Somewhere between the original spark of genius and a successfully profitable enterprise, though, lies a maturation process that pits the inventor’s vision against the cold and cynical outlook of the business world. Often the 1 percent-a deep and highly individual creative desire-gets lost amid the desire to look and feel like a “real” company. But it is quirky proclivities combined with the sweat that creates the innovations around which successful businesses are formed.

Maggie Orth, founder, president, and sole employee of International Fashion Machines, may not yet qualify as a genius (such labels being generally applied retrospectively), but she certainly has expended the kind of obsessive effort that would make Dr. Einstein proud. Orth creates what she calls interactive textiles-fabrics with technology literally woven in-that can do things such as change color, broadcast and receive radio signals, or act as keyboards under one’s fingertips.

Many regard the seamless weaving of technology into our personal environments as an inevitable trend with huge profit potential (witness the dramatic expansion of wireless networking, for one), and Orth is no exception. She believes integrating electronics into the clothes we wear, the fabrics we sit on, and the materials that clad our walls is the next logical step.

Yet one look at Orth’s interactive fabrics, and it’s obvious that she is driven by far more than a desire to capitalize on a hot trend. Simply put, her pieces are stunningly beautiful. Her “electric plaid” fabrics, for instance, are intricately woven with fibers that shift colors when heated via electronic controls. The result is a sublimely animated, vividly colored wall covering that is constantly in motion.

The strong aesthetics of Orth’s creations are no surprise: she trained as an artist at the Rhode Island School of Design before earning a PhD at MIT’s Media Lab. “The problem I had when I got to MIT is that I couldn’t make beautiful things out of technology,” she says. Orth quickly solved that problem, creating, among other items, a jacket with a built-in musical synthesizer played via an embroidered keypad and an haute-couture “firefly” evening gown with integral lighting that sparkled and flashed as the wearer walked.

Like many 99 percenters, Orth can trace her drives to childhood. “The sewing machine I still use is the one my mother taught me to sew on when I was four. It’s like a part of my body,” she says. But for her, as for any entrepreneur, the critical existential issue is revenue, so Orth is readying a new line of consumer products that she hopes will start bringing interactive textiles into the mainstream. Her first product is a light switch that works like an ordinary dimmer but is faced by her electrically active fabric instead of a chunk of plastic. Another switch is controlled by patting a conductive pom-pom that looks as if it were plucked from a child’s sock.

Orth sees the switches and similar consumer devices as important steps, not just for their anticipated commercial success, but as a way to establish interactive textiles’ safety. Orth hopes the products earn “UL listings,” which designate that a device has been tested and deemed safe by the nonprofit Underwriters Laboratories. Existing safety codes for textiles and electronics weren’t created with woven circuitry in mind, and Orth faces an uphill battle educating standards boards.

Nonetheless, Orth sees that challenge as part of her artistic vision. “I think it’s actually a bit perverse to be selling a UL-listed pom-pom,” she laughs. “Textiles are incredibly intimate and tactile, and weaving technology into our intimate spaces changes the way we live.” When described that way, Orth’s aesthetically driven approach starts to make a great deal of commercial sense. “You can’t just dump information and technology into people’s personal spaces. It has to be beautiful or people won’t want it,” she says.

Orth’s stewardship of her company shows remarkable resourcefulness and care. She’s raised (and spent) only about $100,000 in investment so far, and while her sales figures are still small-she’s sold a few specialty wall hangings-her reputation brought her research contracts from DuPont and the U.S. Department of Defense. Orth is now seeking further angel capital to produce and market her consumer products, which she hopes to sell through stores like the Sharper Image.

International Fashion Machines faces a long road to commercial success. But if someday, as Orth would have it, your communication system is woven into your T-shirt, you can regale your kids with stories of how phones used to be easily misplaced lumps of plastic. And perhaps your shirt, when the perspiration threshold crosses that 99 percent mark, can reach out invisibly and turn down the heat.

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