Inside Intelligent Textiles: making smart materials for the military
Guarding against attack with smart materials
That a two-person start-up from Surrey is winning military contracts alongside hulking great corporates such as BAE Systems is both remarkable and, to a distant observer, a cause for concern. Couldn’t those huge military contractors get their research teams working on materials similar to those produced by Intelligent Textiles and cut the small British firm out of the deal? “For a tiny company we have a huge patent portfolio,” said Thompson. “We knew that patents were important from day one.”
But Thompson isn’t relying purely on notoriously vulnerable patents. “For a tiny company, business is done person to person. If somebody gets your technology and you have a good relationship with them, I don’t think it matters if you’re working for a company the size of BAE or the US military – it’s people to people that create a business.”
“It’s terrifying working with big companies,” added Thompson. “It’s terrifying working with the US military – they have a bit of a reputation for taking good ideas. But wherever possible we’re using our secret technique. A lot of what you put in your patents is important, but a lot of the know-how is also important. Sometimes it pays to keep a little bit of know-how secret.”
The company’s unique skillset also helps prevents partners from taking ideas. “In the military market, it’s not often you have a weaver in the mix!”
Staying focused on smart materials
For the foreseeable future, the Intelligent Textiles duo plans to continue developing military equipment, potentially looking at alternative power sources such as solar energy. Thompson says they have “oodles” of other ideas, particularly for healthcare products, but with only two people they want to maintain their focus. The company doesn’t even have a website to speak of – more of a holding page inviting potential clients to pick up the telephone if they want to get in touch.
“We’re quite stealthy,” joked Thompson. “We don’t need to be public-facing. A lot of people are interested in the technology, which is fantastic, but we have enough on our plates dealing with what we’ve got, if we’re honest.”
“Really, we should have expanded by now,” she adds. “We’ve been rather lazy – or control freaks.” Judging by the pair’s success so far, it seems much more likely to be the latter.
Images: Innovate UK