Department of Defense to invest $75M in flexible electronics research consortium

By Jonah Comstock
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Cambridge-based MC10 is a startup focused on flexible electronics. Pictured above: A device from Cambridge-based MC10, a company focused on flexible electronics.

The US Department of Defense is making a big bet on flexible electronics, an area of technology with close ties to mobile health. The DoD announced last week that it will invest $75 million in a public-private partnership called the , which will consist of a consortium of 162 companies, universities, and non-profits led by the FlexTech Alliance, an industry association. That funding will be distributed over five years and boosted by a further $90 million in private and academic funding.

"The intent of the MII is to draw in the country's 'best of the best' scientists, engineers, manufacturing experts and business development professionals in the field of flexible hybrid electronics," Dr. Malcolm Thompson, Executive Director-designate of the institute, said in a statement.

A hub in San Jose, California will provide overall program direction, integrate components, create prototypes, and develop manufacturing protocols for flexible electronics, but will work with teams spread out across the country to develop these technologies. Flexible electronics have implications for defense -- creating wrap-around screens and displays or impact sensors that wrap around the curved hull of a plane or ship -- but also in healthcare.

"Our troops will be able to lighten their loads with sensors and electronic gear embedded in their clothing, and wounded warriors will benefit from smart prosthetics that have the full flexibility of human skin," Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in . "The commercial applications will be just as transformative, if not more so, given the impact of wearables, internet of things, and so on. Smart bandages that can analyze a patient’s biomarkers in their sweat will help doctors catch infections earlier."

"Flexible medical diagnostics for x-rays and breast cancer tests will be more accurate and less painful," he went on. "And instead of tracking athletic performance with bulky devices on our wrists, flexible electronics coupled with new, revolutionary fibers and textiles will let us embed washable, wearable, featherweight sensors in our clothes – giving us an even clearer picture of our health and fitness."

The consortium will include big names like Apple, Lockheed Martin, and Hewlett Packard on the corporate side and Stanford and MIT on the academic side. Healthcare companies include the Cleveland Clinic, Eli Lily, Qualcomm, and Roche Diagnostics.

This is the seventh Manufacturing Innovation Institute that the Obama administration has launched, and the fifth to come under the auspices of the Department of Defense.

"I’ve talked to the President personally about these institutes on a number of occasions – he takes a personal interest in them, you might be interested to know – and I know how important it is to him that America keeps leading in manufacturing innovation and continues to bring great manufacturing jobs back home," Carter said in his speech.

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