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New high-tech fabric innovation center opens headquarters in Cambridge

The Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, a public-private partnership that began at MIT, has officially opened its headquarters.
Yoel Fink, CEO of AFFOA, at the headquarters opening ceremony on MIT's campus. Photo: AFFOA YoutubeAFFOA says it's part of a "fabric revolution," integrating fibers and textiles with technology. Photo: Kristin Toussaint/Metro

Technology has already been integrated into nearly every aspect of our lives, and now even the fabrics on our backs will become more advanced thanks to a new center unveiled Monday in Cambridge.

“Our fabrics express who we are, convey our identity as individuals and our values as a society,” said Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) CEO Yoel Fink at the headquarters’ opening ceremony. “It is a fascinating mystery how these culturally meaningful materials have remained functionally unchanged since the dawn of history.”

MIT started AFFOA in April 2016 with more than $300 million in funding from federal and state governments, as well as academic and corporate partners. MIT won that funding as part of a national competition to create a new textile manufacturing innovation institute.

Basically, throughout human existence our clothes have been just clothes — made of fabrics composed of woven fibers, with no other function than to cover our bodies or carry our items. 

At AFFOA, though, the aim is to create “fabrics that see, hear, sense, communicate, store and convert energy, regulate temperature, monitor health and change color,” Fink said.

To Fink, who is also a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, fabric is “the new software.”

“[Massachusetts] has always been a tremendous source of innovation, creativity and imagination forever and ever and ever, and this is just one more step with respect to that,” Gov. Charlie Baker said at the opening ceremony.

“As far as this particular institution is concerned, we have a long and cherished history in textiles and fabrics to begin with,” he added, “and this literally just takes that cherished history and pushes it forward into what I would describe as the next act.”

AFFOA is one of about 14 such institutes so far under Manufacturing USA, which is the national network for manufacturing innovations, and the first to be headquartered in New England. The headquarters, called a Fabric Discovery Center, is a $10 million, 25,000-square-foot two-story building.

The space will have three main functions: to serve as a startup incubator (AFFOA already has 110 member organizations, 45 of which are startups) and provide tools and guidance to emerging companies who are developing fabric-based products; to focus on education and hands-on opportunities for students to get involved in this emerging field; and to turn ideas into functional products by creating prototypes.

AFFOA is collaborating not only with startups, but also with universities both in the commonwealth and across the country, from UMass Lowell to Drexel University to the University of Texas at Austin and more. The institution is also working with large-scale companies, like Boston’s own New Balance. 

 

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