Can smart wearables startup Flex Energy create a battery to survive your washing machine?

Cynthia Bent Findlay
For Columbus CEO
Provided Photo

Imagine a jacket that can detect pollutants or poisonous gases, an undershirt that can call 911 if you fall or a base layer that can detect a heart attack before it hits.

A Worthington startup is working to make good on those promises, working with technology licensed from the military and with Ohio Third Frontier funding.

Smart clothing has the potential to take off from where a smart watch’s capabilities wane, says Suvankar Sengupta, CEO of Flex Energy.

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Clothing can collect whole new data sets in action—blood pressure, heart rhythms and other muscle activity. There are also environmental sensors which can find, for instance, pollutants in the area. Through the internet of things, this data can further be fed to networked databases.

To have truly functional smart clothing, it’s got to have an invisible, flexible, washable and wearable power source, Sengupta says.

The sensors exist, the concept exists, but current power sources are lacking. The military is already making use of smart clothing but, Sengupta says, “Power is a problem. You have to carry a battery like a brick in your pocket.”

Sengupta and co-founder and COO Ramachandra Revur, friends and engineers looking for entrepreneurial concepts, found that Wright Patterson’s Air Force Research Lab had been developing flexible battery technology.

The pair started working with the lab on refining the concepts and adapting it for various wearable uses. They started Flex Energy in May 2021 and officially licensed the technology for commercialization this February.

They’re working with Pyrolux, separator membranes that allow for better thermal stability and performance than older, commercially available membranes, allowing for batteries which can flex and handle higher operating temperatures.

Flex Energy won a $100,000 Ohio Third Frontier development grant in August 2021 to help further engineer the technology.

“The biggest challenge is to make something that is repeatedly washable, perfectly sealed from water, detergents, mechanical tumbling and high temperatures during drying. And it’s got to work with interconnected sensors and stretchable materials,” Sengupta says.

“I’m sure technology like this, many other companies are working on, so time to market is important to us,” he says.

It’s a challenge they’re excited to meet. Smart clothing was a $2.4 billion market in 2020, Sengupta says, and is projected to be at $5.3 billion by 2024.

Flex Energy, currently a four-person company, envisions a full “scavenger” system that could collect power from the environment (think moisture and light) so it would be possible to not have to plug in the clothing.

Sengupta says the one-year grant gives them a big jump on the road to quick development. They’re looking to an angel/venture capital raise toward the end of the year as they’re able to validate their technology. He hopes to expand to 35 to 45 employees in the coming years.

Cynthia Bent Findlay is a freelance writer.

Flex Energy

6969 Worthington Galena Road, Suite D, Worthington 43085

Business: Flexible wearable battery technology and smart clothing

CEO and co-founder: Suvankar Sengupta

Funding: Self-funded and $100,000 Ohio Third Frontier Technology Validation and Start-up Fund

Launch: May 2021