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Hip to be square

By Rebecca Macfie

Tuesday 1st April 2003

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The 41-year-old Wool Research Organisation of New Zealand (Wronz), based in Lincoln, scored a king hit when one of its latest technologies made it into Time magazine's "Coolest inventions for 2002".

Wronz's invention is incorporated into the sleeve of a $US1000 snowboarding jacket marketed by Burton Snowboards. It's all part of a seriously groovy personalised sound system that allows the wearer to operate his or her Sony Walkman mini-disc system without the inconvenience of removing gloves and fussing around with zippers. Just press the Play icon on your sleeve and Bob's your uncle.

The technology is the product of Softswitch, a joint venture between Wronz and UK-based Peratec formed to develop "smart textiles". Built into the sleeve of the jacket is a specially devised polymer that acts as a conductor when pressure is applied. This transmits to the Walkman via conductive fibres woven into the sleeve of the jacket. And when the jacket gets dirty, bung it in the wash - although it's advisable to remove the Walkman first.

Wronz's contribution to the development was to use its textile expertise to develop the conductive tape that connects the control panel with the Walkman. Wronz managing director Garth Carnaby says Softswitch is also working on a control system for the space suits for the Mars shuttle. The potential applications of the technology are thought to be wide - fabric keyboards that can be rolled up and tucked away, TV remotes incorporated into the sofa and GPS monitors in your collar, to name but a few.

Owned by a raft of wool, carpet and textile companies and funded to the tune of $18 million last year from wool-grower levies, Foundation for Research Science and Technology funding, private contracts and its own profits, Wronz's mission is to extract extra value from the nation's 185,000-tonne annual wool clip. That means not only developing better ways of scouring, dying and weaving wool, but also finding uses for its valuable component parts. Another of Wronz's ventures is Keratec, a spin-off company formed to commercialise keratin, a valuable protein contained in wool fibre.

Carnaby says it has taken Wronz five years to work out how to extract the protein. "Anyone can dissolve wool in caustic soda, but you destroy the protein along with it. So the research issue was how to unpick a relatively tightly held protein without destroying it in the process."

Not surprisingly, Carnaby isn't about to tell us how: that knowledge is protected by a cluster of patents. He's also guarded about the immediate prospects for Keratec, but says the company is working with several offshore companies to develop products using the protein, and he expects it to be generating revenue from the sale of goods containing keratin within a year. The first products likely to see the light of day will be in the cosmetic field, but there are also potential medical applications such as wound dressings and surgical implants.

Carnaby won't say what all this might be worth, but "there are a whole lot more valuable consumer uses for wool than walking on it. Lets just say that if you are going to smear it on your face, it's going to be worth more."

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