It started with an everyday annoyance — hot summer temperatures and cold workplaces with the air conditioning blasting.
“As we looked around the office, all the women are wearing cardigans,” said Amee Chaudry a co-founder of Cognowear. Most offices are set to 68 to 72 degrees, but a woman’s ideal temperature to be productive is in the mid 70s, Chaudry said. And it’s not just a comfort issue, she said.
It’s a health issue. When the body is cold, it retains more fat, Chaudry said. If workers are keeping space heaters under their desks, it’s an energy issue, too.
So Chaudry, a biomedical engineer and Marlene Behrmann-Cohen, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, teamed up to create clothes that would sense a wearer’s body temperature and the heat — or lack thereof — in the room and adapt accordingly to a comfortable level.
Their company, Cognowear, has goals beyond workplace clothes. The wearable technology can be used to keep nonverbal kids and adults comfortable and to cool workers and military who are in extreme heat, Chaudry said.
But first, the duo needed to test their first product — a “caplet, shawl or infinity scarf” with adjustable temperature.
Cognowear is one of five companies selected for the second cohort of PGH Lab, which is about one month into its three-month program. The program connects the city and startups, said Annia Aleman, a civic innovation specialist in the city’s Department of Innovation & Performance and PGH Lab organizer. (Read about the other companies in the cohort here.)
The startups get to test their product and have access to bigger data sets, city resources and mentorship from city staff, as well as staff at the urban redevelopment, housing and water and sewer authorities, she said. For the city, it’s a chance for government —which Aleman said is typically risk adverse —to explore new technology and to play a bigger role in supporting early-stage businesses.
PGH Lab seemed like a good start to getting involved with the community, Chaudry said. During the program, URA employees wear the Cognowear caplet and offer feedback on everything from the technical stuff to the look and feel, she said.
How Cognowear works
The company is currently on its first prototype — it’s more like a “caplet, shawl or infinity scarf” and comes in wool or silk, Chaudry said.
“We’re a women-led company, so we wanted to focus on women’s apparel that they can wear in professional settings,” she said, adding that the heated clothing that already exists is often bulky and made for outside, not inside.
On the caplet, there’s a circuit hidden in a front pocket, and it’s battery-powered with a switch for low, medium and high heat. Eventually, Chaudry said the goal is to eliminate the need for a switch and have the fabric adapt as soon as the wearer puts it on.
The goal is components that “serve a function, but are disguised as fashion,” she said.