That’s why Jess is on a mission to develop first-of-its-kind active workwear for women, creating an innovative, fire-retardant fabric with stretch that will form the basis for her first clothing line, set to launch in spring 2020 under her textile and clothing start-up, Jess Black Inc. Her target audience is the growing number of women choosing to work in the trades, currently pegged at four percent according to Statistics Canada’s most recent Labour Force Survey, accounting for 34,800 women.
“I was on the job site one day when I recognized a gap in the market,” says Jess, who is a big fan of regular active wear, but realized she wasn’t fully protected from hazards when wearing it under her work coveralls and other gear. “I noticed there was nothing out there that was safe, fit nicely, and gave me shape.”
Leaving her job operating heavy equipment in 2016 to focus on her start-up full-time, Jess set out to create a base layer of women’s clothing that can be comfortably and safely worn under protective gear.
She found her research team at the University of Alberta where she met Assistant Professor Patricia Dolez, PEng, and postdoctoral fellow Mahsa Kalantari, PhD, in the Human Ecology Department’s Clothing, Textiles and Materials branch. She then came across the Mitacs internship program, which she says offered valuable assistance at a critical point in her entrepreneurial journey.
Jess explains that as an entrepreneur with a big idea and no initial sales, it was hard to find organizations or lending institutions that supported R&D. Luckily, through word of mouth, she found Mitacs and was able to secure a research intern with funding that gave her “a bit of breathing room” to get her project up and running.
Through Mitacs, Jess was provided access to the university’s state-of-the-art clothing and textiles testing lab, where researcher Mahsa Kalantari works under the supervision of Professor Dolez to create the unique fabric. As Mahsa explains, the process involves a great deal of back and forth between her lab and textile manufacturers in Quebec, as she selects fibres and tests yarn and fabric structure to achieve the right combination of protective properties and stretch.
“Our goal is to help women working in male-dominated roles feel fashionable without losing essential protective qualities like fire resistance, moisture wicking, and breathability,” says Mahsa, noting that protective garments currently on the market are less comfortable and don’t fit women properly. “The sizing is not right — even the extra small is often too large for many women,” she adds.
Mahsa’s supervisor, Professor Patricia Dolez, focuses her research on protective clothing and personal protective equipment, specifically for occupational safety and health. With a particular interest in nanotechnologies, smart materials, natural fibres, and recycled textiles, she oversees Mahsa’s work on the Jess Black project.
“Mahsa has a background in textiles, so she is the right person for the job,” says Professor Dolez. In addition to learning new aspects of research and development with the company, Mahsa has made many industry connections.
“That’s a big thing — connections with textile industry across Canada. This is very important for her next step.”
Professor Dolez, who has worked with interns representing several of Mitacs’s programs, explains that it’s beneficial to have industry experience, whether or not her students pursue a career in academia or in business.
“It’s good to know what industry is interested in. What is the time-frame for completing a project? What are the limitations? It’s very important to have a better understanding of what industry is looking for,” says Dolez. “And I appreciate the opportunity for Mahsa and for myself as well to connect with industry collaborators.”
According to Mitacs Vice-President of Business Development Jesse Vincent-Herscovici, the Mitacs internship program, which is supported by provincial and federal government funding, is aimed at helping companies, such as Jess Black Inc., to leverage their research investment.
“Many small businesses across Canada have unlocked the equation to scaling up their R&D efforts by using Mitacs,” says Jesse. Mitacs business development professionals — trained to understand industry challenges — match a company’s needs to research expertise within universities and colleges across Canada.
“We help companies create an innovation roadmap and then help them find the right research counterparts to drive development,” he added. “The day-to-day transfer of knowledge between our interns and the businesses they support is the power behind the success of our internship program.”
As Jess Black gears up for the company’s spring fashion launch, she’s already looking ahead to next steps with plans to expand her research efforts in the new year. “I started this company three years ago and I kept hitting walls,” she said. “In the last year, working with Mitacs researchers and establishing a great team, we’ve really made progress and we all see the vision. My business can only accelerate from here.”
Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Alberta Innovates for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Saskatchewan, and Research Manitoba.