PARIS — Using living organisms to enhance performance: that’s the latest area being explored by Puma, which during Milan Design Week in April will present an exhibition showcasing four experiments in the field of biodesign developed with MIT Design Lab, an interdisciplinary research laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Bridging the worlds of biology and design, using living materials such as algae or bacteria to create products, the focus is on how the next generation of athletic footwear, apparel and wearables can adapt in real time by using living organisms to enhance performance. (Think a football jersey made from spider’s silk.)
Powered by a Biorealize desktop bio-prototyping platform, the display will include the “Breathing Shoe,” billed as a sneaker capable of growing its own passageways to enable personalized ventilation. The “Deep Learning Insole” is designed to improve an athlete’s performance through real-time bio-feedback, using organisms to measure long and short-term chemical phenomena that indicate fatigue and well-being.
The microbially active “Carbon Eaters” concept, meanwhile, responds to environmental factors in real time by changing its appearance to inform the wearer about air quality. “Carbon Eaters” are microbially activated self-adhesive silicon-cast stickers that can be bonded to T-shirts and that respond to the carbon dioxide in the environment by changing color. As the user performs a daily run, the organisms begin to change from a dark yellow-brown hue to bright purple. Further CO2 absorption creates a deeper purple, indicating poorer air quality.
Finally, the “adaptive packaging” concept is made from a biodegradable material that is programmed to decompose in a fixed time.
Puma’s director of innovation Charles Johnson spoke to WWD about the ongoing project, launched in June 2017.
WWD: What kind of brief did you give MIT? What were you looking to explore in order to have the edge over the competition?
Charles Johnson: It’s not so much that we briefed them, it goes back to why we work with MIT: they have far-reaching knowledge and awareness of what is on the landscape technologically and movement-wise.
When you think of MIT and technology, you think of digital technology, which is an area that we explore with them. However, biodesign is really about a different kind of wearable. That was the premise. We have them exploring technology, digital — and some of that is wearable technology that is digital — but this is a new channel around wearables. We say wearables because it’s worn by the body, there’s a sensing going on, and there’s an action.
WWD: Do you have any examples of ways this has been used before?
C.J.: There are some examples we could point to in the industry. You might have heard of spider silk, using nature, using what a spider offers literally, its silk, and turning that into a garment that has [performance] qualities. Another is growing mushrooms into a solid material that can be used for packaging, for example.
The skin-care industry has products like skin creams that attune themselves with a particular skin type. There are areas where it is being used, but not really in this way.
WWD: Would you say that this research has grown out of the sustainable movement?
C.J.: No. At Puma we do adhere to standards around sustainability, it’s part of our business practice, but this was borne more out of cutting-edge technology which, in this case, happens to come from nature.
WWD: Are real-time functions key in terms of trends?
C.J.: It’s definitely something that we pay attention to. We have a practice here at Puma Innovation that we call adaptive dynamic, and that means technologies or products that adapt to the athlete or to the environment. It motivates us in a number of different projects that we do. If that’s a trend, we’re setting it.
WWD: The exhibition in Milan will be powered by a Biorealize desktop bioprototyping platform. What is that exactly?
C.J.: It’s a tool that bio-designers can use to create purpose-built bacterias and micro-organisms. It looks like a turntable with a clear acrylic cover, only with syringes on it. Fluids are being moved from one end of the tool to the other, there’s a rotating aspect. If you know the Schneewittchensarg Dieter Rams-designed turntables [from the Fifties], it’s kind of reminiscent of that.
WWD: Tell us about how you are looking at nature to enhance performance in activewear. Is the ultimate aim to mirror the behavior of nature?
C.J.: The revelation is, you have to look at the means or the medium in a totally different way, or what it’s capable of. Another way to think of something like the “Breathing Shoe” concept we have, it’s partly self-assembly, the bacteria can be responsible for a portion of manufacturing, meaning there’s a material on the shoe and it’s not complete until it interacts with the human body. The manufacturing process is somehow completed through that, and that’s really interesting. That nature can do that to a product.
WWD: Are you going to be applying this research to leisurewear?
C.J.: Sure, our initial focus is what functional performance benefit it can bring to an athlete, but at the same time bacteria or micro-organisms can be programmed to simply change color, which is a customization story. It doesn’t have to be about breathability on a product, it could be sharing a mood or expression of the person who’s wearing it.
WWD: Is this something you’re looking to develop?
C.J.: It’s a bit early; conceptualizing something is one thing, scaling it is another. At this stage, things like cost, we can’t even consider. And of course cost is a key factor in commercialization.
WWD: Can bacteria make an athlete go faster?
C.J.: We’re focused on enhancing performance, if we have a shoe that improves breathability or an in sole that can tell us about the nutrition level or the physical condition of our athlete, it’s real information. And in a world where seconds and milliseconds matter in performance, we feel that these things, if they bring benefits, then they can make athletes faster.
WWD: What other fields are you looking at?
C.J.: With some of the work we’re doing with MIT, where we’re exploring artificial intelligence, we just launched the new and improved app, Pumatrac, and are using some artificial intelligence learning to create this bespoke training experience. We’re also looking at footwear that has sensing capabilities and smart capabilities, not only with MIT, but also with our own work internally.
WWD: Could this research also pave the way for leather-free designs?
C.J.: Bio-design is being used for synthetic leather. I think it’s in our future, but we have no plans to introduce it.
WWD: Will the designs that you’re set to present in the Milan exhibition be commercialized?
C.J.: It’s still too early to say.
WWD: How do you think consumers might react to the idea of wearing goods featuring a bacteria element? Do you think they could be grossed out by it? Will it pose a challenge?
C.J.: Once people understand what’s going on and how common it is, there’s good bacteria, right? That requires a bit of education, of course, and it’s always a challenge to get consumers to understand what’s behind something. At the same time, consumers are smart. Views change and things evolve and I think this is something that will be palatable to consumers when they understand what it does.
WWD: What does the future of activewear look like for you?
C.J.: The future of activewear is that athletes will have products that adapt to them and their environment in real time, with them having to do nothing, and really optimize their movement, their body, their performance. That’s the future: whether it’s analog technology, as we’re speaking of now, biodesign or digital technology, products will behave on behalf of the athlete, in real time and effortlessly.
WWD: Do you see biodesign as the next wave of the industry?
C.J.: It’s the next, next wave.