An upstart company called Oros debuted its first cold-weather clothing last year with an innovative approach to warmth. Its approach seemed alien to many and a risky black hole to others, but it could be a launchpad for new products that keep people warm without the bulk. The idea: use spacesuit insulation in outdoor clothing.
We wrote about the company’s latest Kickstarter campaign as the Oros jackets from last year were updated and joined by gloves, pants and beanies. Using NASA’s aerogel approach, the company’s approaching the outdoor apparel scene so radically that a Q&A with its founders was more than warranted. For those of us with Raynaud’s, an interview was downright required. The prospect of staying warm without adding too much bulk is just too intriguing to ignore.
Below is Part 1 of our interview with Oros. This Q&A focuses on where the idea came from to use spacesuit insulation in outdoor clothing, as well as what the founders believe are aerogel’s advantages. The second part of our Oros interview covers their product development cycle, environmental considerations with aerogel, and aerogel’s implications for layering.
Thanks for taking time to chat with me. For the benefit of readers, would you please share your names, titles, and how long you’ve been with Oros?
Michael Markesbery, Co-founder; Rithvik Venna, Co-founder; and Massimiliano “Max” Squire, Co-founder. We’ve all been with the company for two years.
Where were you all before founding Oros?
We were all in college. Rithvik and I (Michael) were science geeks at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Max was in business school at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy.
How many people are on the Oros team? Are you weighted more heavily toward clothing designers and “artists,” or engineers and scientists?
We’ve got a good mix of people. We’re probably outnumbered by the marketers and designers, but I always advocate for more science. After all, if you’re not innovating, you’re dying.
So…spacesuit insulation in outdoor clothing. Where on Earth (or off of it) did you come up with that idea? Was it some crazy late-night, beer-induced idea that just stuck? Had anyone on the team been in the apparel industry before?
Three years ago, in our sophomore year of college, Max and I (Michael) were backpacking across Europe. We did a lot of cool things—ran with the bulls in Spain, tasted wine in Bordeaux, surfed in Biarritz. Coolest thing we did is we summited the tallest mountain in the NE Swiss Alps. While it was an incredible experience, we had one issue: with all the layers of gear, we looked like the Michelin man. Even worse, we were still cold. We got to thinking, why does anybody put up with this sh*t?
Fast forward a few months. I’m back in school at Miami University. I was conducting research on a potential therapeutic treatment for cancer (science geek, remember). For my research, I received a scholarship from NASA (Astronaut Scholarship). Through this scholarship, I learned about aerogel. Aerogel is the lowest thermal conductive solid on the planet, meaning per unit thickness it’s the best insulation on the planet. So good, in fact, that NASA uses it for insulation in their spacesuits, space shuttles, and mars rovers (space can get down to just 2 degrees above absolute zero… that’s cold).
A big lightbulb went off in my head. “Hey! Just a few months ago, I had a miserable time summiting this mountain because of the bulky layers and intense cold. You’re telling me there’s this aerogel stuff that could fix all my problems?” Next thing I knew, I was telling Rithvik (a fellow science geek; we actually met in an Organic Chemistry class) about this aerogel stuff, and how I was thinking about aerogel apparel. Next thing I knew, we were calling aerogel manufacturers, buying every type of aerogel we could get our hands on, and running with our idea.
Since aerogel was NASA technology, was any sort of de-classifying needed before Oros could use it? Just hearing that it came from NASA implies “government property, off-limits.”
Aerogel, as a whole, is actually open source. Anyone can make it. Where it gets a little hazy is there are tons of permutations of aerogel and different vectors that you can embed aerogel in. What you need to know is there are several varieties of aerogel, all with different properties. People are patenting these varieties, though only very few have the properties necessary for apparel (flexibility, breathability, durability, etc.)
How long was NASA working on the base technology? How long did it take Oros to adapt it for your original Lukla Endeavour jacket?
Aerogel monoliths have been around since the 1930s, actually before NASA’s time. NASA adopted it for a series of their own uses (collecting comet dust, insulation on the Mars Rovers, and they’re exploring its potential in the next generation EVA gloves, which is badass).
We spent roughly two years before we sold our first product. Those two years were spent mostly on exploring aerogel.
Why has nobody else outside of NASA thought of using this aerogel insulation for clothing? Or have they?
Several institutions have tried implementing aerogel in apparel. The aerogel they used had a series of problems, making it very difficult to work with. One, it was incredibly expensive, not leaving a whole lot of margin for the brand. Two, the aerogel particles were embedded in a fiber. With movement, the aerogel particles would come loose from the fiber (meaning, every time you’d move, you’d lose thermal performance from your garment). Three, these particles, if they came in contact with your skin, would dry it out like you wouldn’t believe. To prevent this, manufacturers had to put the aerogel through a process called encapsulation. This encapsulation cut down heavily on the garments breathability. Four, if this encapsulation ripped, aerogel particles would go everywhere, ruining the garment.
Between the expensive nature of aerogel, the consistent loss of insulation, the lack of breathability and lack of durability, aerogel wasn’t suited to disrupt the apparel space. That’s why spent so much time on Solarcore aerogel [Editor’s note: that’s Oros’ new aerogel going into their upcoming jackets, pants, gloves and beanies]. Solarcore is the first aerogel with no aerogel shedding, no encapsulation, four-way stretch and hydrophobicity, all while maintaining the incredible insulation that aerogel is known for.
Click here to read Part 2 of our Oros interview, which highlights development cycles, the environment, and tests with liquid nitrogen.