BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Buffalo native Van DiBernardo was designing shoes for DKNY during the 1990s when he learned that he had multiple sclerosis (MS). The disease, an autoimmune disorder, caused fatigue, imbalance, blurred vision and other symptoms -- all exacerbated by the heat of New York City's summers.
DiBernardo's illness forced him to leave his job at DKNY, but also opened new and exciting possibilities.
With help from the University at Buffalo, DiBernardo has channeled his fashion experience and struggle with MS into an inspiring venture: Coolture, an apparel company devoted to designing vests that keep people with chronic illness cool and comfortable in the heat.
The Buffalo-based business, which DiBernardo founded with his sister, Luanne DiBernardo, began taking orders for its first vest in July.
The sleek, gray garment features specially designed pockets where wearers can insert coolants resembling dry ice. High-tech fabrics absorb body heat, providing extra cooling, according to the company. It's a stylish alternative to clunkier vests designed for use in factories and on construction sites.
Luanne, who serves as Coolture's vice president of marketing and sales, said UB's support has been instrumental in helping the company get off the ground.
Nadine Fisher, EdD, director of the Rehabilitation Physiology Laboratory in UB's Department of Rehabilitation Science, oversaw efficacy tests that pitted Coolture's vest against competitors. Those experiments, funded by an award from the UB Center for Advanced Biomedical and Bioengineering Technology (UB CAT), found that the interior of Coolture's garment generally stayed cooler longer than two top alternatives, especially on the backside.
Later, UB Associate Vice President for Economic Development Marnie LaVigne encouraged Luanne to seek advice on cooling technology from Thomas Stewart, a UB CAT board member who holds patents in that area. The result: Stewart, former president of global medical technology company Gaymar Industries, joined Coolture as president and CEO.
LaVigne's team also introduced Coolture to important contacts including the firm's attorney, a scientific consultant, potential investors and UB MBA students who conducted the company's market analysis.
"Coolture is an example of a young company that is transforming innovative ideas into products with immediate value in the marketplace," LaVigne said. "The UB CAT supports these businesses at a critical point in their development, facilitating the commercialization of new products and services that might otherwise take longer to develop."
As a testament to Coolture's dedication to Western New York, the vest is manufactured at a QSG Technologies facility in Buffalo that employs local workers. Plans call for visually impaired workers at the local Olmsted Center for Sight to handle packaging and shipping, Luanne said.
LaVigne sees great promise in Coolture, whose market includes not only people with chronic illness, but also athletes looking to cool their core body temperature to improve performance. Golfers in sunny states like Florida or California could also benefit, employing the vest as a safeguard against overheating, Luanne said.
This spring, Coolture was invited to pitch its product to angels and venture capitalists at an annual venture forum that UB's Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences coordinates.
For Luanne and Van, the launch of their first product is a gratifying milestone -- one that validates the long hours they've poured into establishing their company over the past several years.
Van recalled how friends and colleagues, including his employers, supported him as he struggled with MS. Before he resigned from DKNY, the company made tremendous efforts to accommodate him as his condition worsened, eventually hiring an illustrator to sketch designs based on his visions when tremors prohibited the use of his own hands, Van remembered.
After all he has experienced, Coolture is Van's way of giving back.
"Good design is a reaction to the world around you. Coolture is my reaction to the world I've come to know," he said. "Unfortunately, good design is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to products manufactured for the compromised. My goal is to provide high quality fabrics, designs and lifestyle cooling solutions that anyone would want to wear. Why separate the chronically ill from the chronically well?"
About the UB Center for Advanced Biomedical and Bioengineering Technology (UB CAT): http://www.bioinformatics.buffalo.edu/cat.php
About Coolture: http://coolture.net/