On a Wednesday afternoon in October, a group of 11 educators and industry leaders from Canada and Europe packed themselves onto a stage at a Montreal university to discuss what they believe could propel the wearable tech industry: education. “We need programs so we can respond to future demands,” says Paulette Kaci, executive director of research centre Vestechpro, based at Cégep Marie-Victorin in Montreal’s north end. They were concerned that current design students would graduate into an industry that was moving so fast, students’ skills would lag behind. Or that if they wanted the wide range of specialized skills required to develop wearable technology, they wouldn’t be able to find training at existing schools, and that teachers and education ministries would have trouble keeping up with the industry.
While some university art and design professors, such as Joanna Berzowska at Concordia University, do offer wearable tech classes, Montreal lacks a dedicated program. Still, innovation in the sector has sprouted up at companies and at institutions like Marie-Victorin, where wearable tech has gotten a head start.
Vestechpro opened five years ago, in the early days of the industry, when it was unclear whether wearable tech might be a short-lived novelty. “It almost happened by accident,” says Nadine Meunier, a fashion design and manufacturing teacher at the CEGEP.
Meunier, who was a project manager at the centre when it launched, says Vestechpro started as an incubator to help garment companies innovate. But it soon turned its focus to smart garments—combining technology, advanced data and uncommon fabrics—when a group of engineers reached out for help integrating technology into a garment. “That’s how it started,” she says. “Now it’s an unexpected breeding ground for innovations that developed as a response to industry demands.”
Vestechpro acts as a bridge between industry players and the school, leading to the types of relationships a school with a prominent fashion program yearns for, she says.
Kaci, the director, says Vestechpro routinely recruits students and teachers from the fashion program to help with research projects and to organize design contests and conferences to generate interest in wearable technology. Those students find work in the industry: Kaci mentions a former Marie-Victorin student who interned with Vestechpro and went to work at Hexoskin, a Montreal company that sells a “biometric” shirt that records data such as heartbeat and lung capacity. That’s one of the products Vestechpro helped develop. “We’re trying to find ways to introduce students to these innovative subjects they don’t learn in class.”
She sees the future of wearable technology not so much in gadgets like fitness trackers but in garments that are “of service to humans.” Kaci points to the United States, where Levi’s announced a collaboration with Google’s “Project Jacquard” to create a jeans line for bike messengers that allows them to push and swipe stitches in the fabric to answer phone calls or change a song on their device.
The Marie-Victorin centre is also working on underwear for men dealing with incontinence issues related to prostate cancer. It can develop prototypes at its lab at the CEGEP, which houses 15 specialized sewing machines and a scanner that takes body measurements for customized garments.
The centre is about to run out of space, Kaci says, noting Vestechpro has gone from two to 12 employees in its five years. “It’s a good problem to have.”
The main funding comes from a $280,000 yearly stipend the Quebec government pays to 49 similar college research centres. Vestechpro also charges companies for its services and applies for research grants. For instance, in spring 2014, it landed a $70,000 NSERC grant to help develop Hexoskin.
Space isn’t the only limitation Kaci and others see to Quebec’s role in wearable tech—there’s also student interest. “It surprises me,” says Jocelyn Bellemare, a teacher at UQÀM and frequent Vestechpro collaborator. “They know it’s there and it engages them, but not to the extent that I would have thought.” That may be just a matter of time, as the wearable tech industry is leaping forward.
Kaci sees a bright future for wearable tech in Montreal and Quebec. Says Bellemare: “Montreal is effervescent, stimulating. It’s not a fashion city; it’s a creative city.”