Company’s Alexicool PCM technology is among products driving its bedding business
Based on the initial response to its Alexicool PCM technology, Alexium International Group’s growing suite of cooling solutions for mattresses and pillows, the company is expecting significant sales gains in the bedding segment in 2019.
Alexium traces its roots to 2009, when a group of British and Australian entrepreneurs acquired the commercial rights to Reactive Surface Treatment technology pioneered by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. Developed at a cost of about $30 million, it was designed to be used by the military as protection against chemical and biological warfare. The technology involves the surface modification and attachment of nanoparticles or multiple chemical functional groups to textiles and other surfaces or substrates, providing functions such as thermal regulation, fire retardancy, waterproofing and anti-microbial protection.
After raising capital through a listing on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2010, Alexium began building a team of business professionals, engineers, scientists and technical consultants in three locations around the globe. In addition to its headquarters in Greer, South Carolina, where it operates a facility with executive offices and research-and-development laboratories, Alexium has an office in Perth, Australia.
In 2011, Alexium rolled out its first product for military and commercial use — Cleanshell, a water- and oil-repellant treatment for military uniforms, tactical gear and other types of apparel. Based on RST technology, Cleanshell provides enhanced protection for a material’s fibers by encapsulating them in a durable nanoscopic coating.
The next year, Alexium expanded its technical team and broadened its R&D efforts to include FR chemistry. That year, it launched a new suite of FR chemical solutions called Alexiflam for use on apparel and home furnishings textiles. The innovative technology uses a charring mechanism to extinguish flames while preventing any melting or dripping.
Today, Alexiflam is used to protect bedding, upholstered furniture, carpeting and window coverings. Applied via standard textile finishing equipment, Alexiflam is suitable for use on cotton, wool and synthetic fibers. Sleep products that feature the finish include ticking.
Big year for introductions
Alexium’s second major suite of products is Alexicool PCM, a phase-change material chemistry the company introduced in 2016. This year, Alexium is preparing for a new wave of bedding products incorporating its Alexicool PCM fabric finish technology to hit the market. Designed for use on bedding and apparel fabrics, some versions of Alexicool PCM feature both thermal regulation and FR properties.
Alexicool technology is now the major source of revenue for the company, with consumer bedding products the biggest single market. In bedding, Alexicool technology is used to provide a cool-to-the-touch effect and thermal regulation in a range of products and components, including top-of-bed accessories, outer and inner mattress layers and, most recently, foam components.
Several beds featuring Alexicool PCM-finished ticking were introduced by mattress manufacturers at the Winter Las Vegas Market in January and, the company says, the pace of introductions will increase at the July market when a variety of other bed makers will bring out new products incorporating the technology. Alexium says it is working with a number of the industry’s major producers.
“There is a wide range of new products that our customers will be releasing in 2019,” says Robert Brookins, Alexium chief executive officer and managing director. “They range from promotional models to midpriced and luxury beds. With our Alexicool technology, customers have the ability to deliver cooling in a variety of ways and price points to create differentiation for their lines.”
Brookins, previously vice president of research and development for the company, joined Alexium in 2010, shortly after the company’s launch. In his VP role, Brookins led the development and commercialization of Alexium’s PCM platform technologies and the Alexicool product line. In addition, Brookins co-invented Alexium’s FR technologies for military uniforms and formaldehyde-free FR products for cotton-based materials.
Prior to joining Alexium, Brookins was a research specialist with the Air Force Research Laboratory. He received a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Florida.
Replacing Brookins as VP of research and development is Richard Estes, co-inventor of Alexium PCM and FR technologies. Estes has more than 25 years of experience in materials science across a range of industries, including coatings and textiles.
Rounding out the executive team are Jason Lewis, chief financial officer, and Allen Reihman, chief commercial officer.
“Jason and Allen have been instrumental in our efforts to bring our innovative technologies to market,” Brookins says. “Our technical team is incredibly strong, and we’ve also rounded out additional areas of the company, including sales, service and production.”
Serving as senior business development executive is industry veteran Steve Gravlee, whose experience includes service with ticking and fabric suppliers Burlington, Creative Ticking and Tietex. On the sales side, Gravlee works closely with Chris Carter, senior business development executive, who spent two decades with Milliken Chemical before joining Alexium.
“All it takes is a trial for someone to see on their own fabrics the difference Alexicool PCM makes in the final product,” Gravlee says about the process of getting a new customer to try Alexium’s expanding suite of cooling products. “Alexicool products have a buttery, soft hand with exceptional cooling. They also feature a robust FR package and are a true ‘one-drum’ solution.”
As the boxed-bed segment continues to expand, cooling is becoming “an expectation rather than a feature,” Gravlee adds.
With performance features becoming more prevalent at a wider range of mattress pricing tiers, “we can customize our Alexicool solutions to meet a customer’s specifications — from longer-lasting cooling to application placement for maximum effect,” says Carter, adding that cooling is becoming “an increasingly integral part of the mattress system.”
Alexium works with customers to identify emerging needs, according to Carter. “We regularly create samples per a customer’s request, and then we will take it a step beyond by providing enhanced alternative options of interest to the final product design,” he says.
By understanding the desired functionality, “our team can often exceed what the customer thought was possible,” he says.
New approach to cooling
When it comes to the bedding industry, Alexium’s major focus this year is its Alexicool line. Late in 2018, Alexicool products were chosen as the key PCM ingredient in a multimillion-dollar pillow program by Pegasus Home Furnishings, a major North American pillow manufacturer that distributes its products through more than 20 e-commerce websites, as well as a number of traditional big-box retailers. Those products now are available for sale and soon will be followed at retail by a range of mattress models from other leading brands also sporting Alexicool technology.
Alexium also is rolling out a new Alexicool technology for foam applications. According to Brookins, recent tests by a third-party facility have demonstrated that Alexicool chemistry has a “substantially greater” cooling effect on foam than technologies offered by a leading competitor in the segment.
“We see a big opportunity for Alexicool PCM on foam,” Brookins says. “Our initial product testing was very encouraging, and the results were more dramatic than anticipated. As a result, we are planning to commercialize Alexicool technology for foam as part of an ongoing stream of useful and differentiated cooling technologies.”
Alexium’s ability to integrate Alexicool technology on both foam and fabric will be a drawing card for potential customers, Brookins says. “We take a holistic approach to help mattress manufacturers get the most out of each application, analyzing factors such as the breathability and weight of fabrics and the design of the foam to make sure every element is working in concert with each other,” he explains.
Going forward, Alexium’s team will be on the lookout for other FR opportunities within the sleep products segment. “Our focus right now is on cooling,” Brookins says. “We’re just scratching the surface of what can be done in this area and want to do a lot more to make cooling options for various price points while also creating new applications for higher-end mattresses and top-of-bed products.”
The fact that Alexium’s formulations are made as single-step, drop-in solutions that can be added at any finishing facility with no changes to equipment makes the company’s products particularly attractive for manufacturers seeking to reduce costs, Brookins adds. To keep its own costs low, Alexium outsources the production of its chemical technologies to local suppliers in North Carolina, South Carolina and other strategic locations worldwide, concentrating its efforts on research and development.
In its South Carolina lab, Alexium also is looking at new applications to enhance the health and wellness properties of sleep products. With all of the technologies it develops, the company focuses on “multifunctionality and compatibility,” Brookins says, “ensuring that various technologies work in tandem.”
“For multifunctional applications, you must ensure the compatibility of all components,” he says. “Making certain that components work together in a complementary manner leads to the most ideal product performance. We put a lot of thought into this on the front end to make sure that any technologies that are incorporated into a mattress or pillow are harmonious and not antagonistic.”
Alexium currently has 25 global patent applications covering chemical structures and applications. The company’s research always will be central to its mission, Brookins says. “We never want to be a ‘me too’ company. Our goal is to keep discovering new ways of deploying chemistry to help manufacturers improve their products.”
Putting technology to the test
Alexium has put a premium on developing sophisticated testing and metrics to measure the performance of its technologies in real-world situations. According to Brookins, the company has created novel testing methods to measure the effectiveness of PCM-based products. “We’ve developed a highly accurate, quantifiable and defendable methodology for comparing PCM solutions,” he says. Based on its findings, Alexicool PCM “not only feels cooler when compared to other PCM products, it is measurably cooler.”
Alexium’s testing protocol is an adaptation of a standard industry tool used to quantify the cooling capacity, or enthalpic cooling, of PCM products when applied to pillows and other bedding products. Using this testing protocol, pillows treated with Alexicool PCM solution were shown to deliver much higher levels of cooling than other commercially available pillows treated with alternate types of PCMs, the company says.
To educate bedding and pillow manufacturers on the benefits of Alexicool technology, Alexium recently launched a new online microsite dedicated to the line.
“We have a number of initiatives underway to raise awareness of our company and our products,” says Adie Lee, Alexium marketing manager. “For starters, we’ll be increasing our presence at trade shows and industry events.” The company also is renewing its social media efforts and has begun promoting Alexicool PCM in industry publications.
Alexium will be working closely with customers to help them strengthen their own marketing messages. “Product marketing too often focuses on making a package blue or describing how a bed feels rather than making clear statements about the degree of cooling that the product provides,” Brookins says. “We want our customers to move … toward more definitive messages based on science and provable results.”
With facilities in Australia, Belgium and the United States, Alexium is positioning itself to be a leading provider of FR and thermal regulation solutions to sleep product manufacturers worldwide. The company already is serving customers in Canada, China, Europe and Mexico.
“Our priority is North America because there are so many emerging opportunities here,” Brookins says, adding that 2019 should be a breakthrough year for the company in terms of sales.
“We’ve had to make a number of big investments to get operations established,” Brookins says. “Now our focus has turned to building market share and serving our growing base of customers within the sleep products community.”