By Eric Peterson | Jan 04, 2022
Sunnyvale, California / Boulder + Aspen, Colorado
Thermoregulating apparel and textile technology
Director of the Advanced Materials Laboratory at Stanford University, Professor Yi Cui co-founded LifeLabs Design with Meng Sui, CEO of EEnotech, to commercialize thermoregulating textile technology.
"This is actually a huge idea," says Mellin, formerly global VP of mountains sports at The North Face before joining LifeLabs as CEO in April 2021.
"My experience with apparel at The North Face, really leading the last four years of innovations there, I saw a really clear path to making this stuff amazing. We pulled together a commercial team; we pulled together a supply chain team; we pulled together design, development, and e-commerce teams. Seven months later, we went live. It's been a really fast project, but that's what happens when you bring in the right people."
LifeLabs has two core technologies: WarmLife and CoolLife. "Both thermoregulating textiles work largely on the theory of managing infrared radiation," says Mellin. "As human beings, we are constantly emitting IR and heat. These textiles are optimized to manage IR and heat."
LifeLabs released 18 styles with both technologies in fall 2021, spanning T-shirts, tops, bottoms, and technical outerwear.
WarmLife "reflects 100 percent of IR radiation back to you" with nanotechnology on the inside of the shell, says Mellin. "We've developed a technique to vapor-deposit a thin, 50-nanometer coating of a metallized surface onto a fabric substrate -- in this case, 100 percent recycled polyester -- and that 50-nanometer coating, in the case of a men's medium jacket, is about half the amount of mass in a paperclip. Because it doesn't influence stretch, drape, or breathability, it's incredibly comfortable to wear, and it allows us to use 30 percent less insulation to keep you just as warm as a competing garment."
A low-density polyethylene, CoolLife does just the opposite. "It's actually pulling heat off your skin," says Mellin, citing fertile markets in hot climates. "You're able to manage sweat and moisture more efficiently."
LifeLabs released CoolLife sleepwear and T-shirts in 2021; more apparel and bedsheets will come out in spring 2022. "CoolLife has the lowest manufacturing sustainability index of any natural or synthetic material in the world today," says Mellin. "It's extremely environmentally friendly. By design, it's circular in nature, so one T-shirt will equal one T-shirt will equal one T-shirt will equal one T-shirt on a go-forward basis. We're developing a pretty strong approach to circularity with our customers."
Sustainability also comes in the form of lower thermostat settings, says Mellin, noting that HVAC systems represent 13 percent of global energy costs. "The central thesis of the technology is really around helping consumers lower their personal carbon footprint by utilizing our apparel or our brand partners' apparel to lower their thermostat settings," he explains. "We believe that if we can help consumers save between a half a ton and a ton [of emissions] per person per household, we can make a significant impact in global warming."
He continues, "In my original commercialization concept, I immediately thought about the Middle East, about Latin America, about Southeast Asia, and all the factory workers I've interfaced with over the decades, and just how we could improve the quality of life in those regions, helping people manage heat better."
With teams working in Boulder (product design and merchandising), Bay Area (materials science and supply chain), and Los Angeles (e-commerce), and a lab in Sunnyvale, the brand is currently manufacturing in southeast Asia.
"We have a pretty extensive network of yarn spinners, mills, finishers," says Mellin. "And then our cut-and-sew facilities for the majority of our product is based in Vietnam, and we have two styles that we manufacture in China currently."
LifeLabs is selling its own products directly to consumers via its website as it explores partnerships with "a constellation of different existing brands to integrate WarmLife and CoolLife into their product ranges," says Mellin.
Look for LifeLabs' first partner products to hit the market by early 2024. "We're working pretty aggressively with a variety of different brands in the mass channel and specialty sport, yoga space, in the surf space even to integrate our fabrics into big, competent global brands," says Mellin. "The idea came from Colorado, the science comes from California, and it's built for the world."
Challenges: "I used to say raising money, but that has actually become pretty easy," says Mellin. "Right now, it's customer acquisition. That's just a process of building a customer portfolio of scale that will help us deliver on the promise of really changing people's reliance on the energy grid and HVAC to keep themselves comfortable."
Opportunities: "There's a constellation of opportunities for us out there, and we're seven months into this thing," says Mellin. "The P&L [profit and loss statement] today, it's really dominated by our brand, but that will shift over time as we see adoption of our technologies by other brands." He forecasts "brand partnership acceleration" in 2024.
"The phone's ringing off the hook on the brand partnership side," he adds. "If you look at a lot of the bigger brands in the world, they're ripe for this kind of partnership that can bring them true, sustainable innovation and develop it into franchises with their own brand. Quite frankly, the world needs like 50,000 less apparel brands, but it does need one true leader in the innovation of the thermoregulation space and a true partner in the sustainability space."
He adds, "Think about the tools of energy transformation today. They're largely dominated by electric cars -- $50,000 to $250,000 -- solar -- I just got a quote for a Tesla solar roof, it's $155,000 -- and wind. I don't know anybody who has their own personal windmill. So if you think about where consumers can actually participate in climate change, it's not a very democratic set of solutions. We believe that by offering people textiles and apparel solutions we'll be able to help democratize energy transformation and help people lower their carbon footprint in demonstrable ways."
The emphasis on CoolLife will shift to partners in home furnishings, draperies, automotive and aviation interiors, and other areas. EVs have emerged as a big target. "What we have essentially and developed and prototyped with a couple of different vendors and a brand are cooling and warming fabrics for the interior of cars that allow the user to use less HVAC and extend the range of the car, because the air-conditioning unit is the single biggest draw on the battery," says Mellin.
"From a classification strategy, we're also looking at products like burkas and hijabs and robes," he adds. "In the Middle East, apparel is dominated by non-technical fabrics, and we believe we can bring a higher quality of life where air conditioning use is a dominant component of energy use."
Needs: "People," says Mellin. "I'm going to need excellent people in China and Southeast Asia, I'm going to need excellent people in the Middle East, and I'm going to need excellent people in Europe as we roll this brand out."
But his considerable experience in international business -- Mellin is a former 450,000-mile-a-year flyer -- helps: "We have a lot of friends around the world, a lot of really good business people in our network around the world, so it's really a matter of process to globalize the business."