By Julia London & Liz Gray
A look at Canadian and US brands with female inventors as founders – including Joanna Griffiths, Kim Kardashian West, Katherine Homuth and Sara Blakely.
Over the last century, we have created self-driving cars, landed on the moon, and detected gravitational waves. Yet, half the population still suffers through uncomfortable pants, constant tears in pantyhose, and leaky tampons. Although innovation for the female demographic has long been neglected, today’s marketplace is finally realizing the opportunity presented by female-focused consumer products.
That opportunity is enormous: back in March 2020, women were forecast to control $43-trillion USD of that year’s global consumer spending. Consumer products brands that focus on female-centric products, such as the US shapewear brand Spanx, thus have a lucrative field to work in.
Since the filing of Spanx’s first patent in 2000 (US Patent No. 6,276,176, entitled “Pantyhose Under Garment”), Spanx’s intellectual property (IP) portfolio has grown to more than two dozen granted US patents and, currently, nearly three dozen pending international patent families. From small beginnings, Spanx’s founder and CEO, Sara Blakely, has built a powerhouse: by 2012, Spanx was valued at over $1-billion USD. In addition, by 2018, Spanx had an estimated $400-million USD in annual sales. It’s safe to say that Spanx has a formidable presence in its market.
Another big name in shapewear is Skims, launched in 2019 by Kim Kardashian West. The brand has already been valued at $1.6-bllion USD and has raised millions in outside funding – including from normally tech-focused venture capital firm Thrive Capital. Kardashian West is listed as an inventor on Skims’ first patent application, filed in 2019 and already issued as a US patent (US Patent No. 10,806,190, entitled “Shapewear Undergarment”).
But shapewear is not the only traditionally female-focused product line where innovative companies are making their mark. Other companies, including the Canadian companies Sheertex and Knix, are moving to fill other empty niches in the female-centered consumer products market—and making a splash.
“Humans have walked on the moon – so why did tights still break at the first sign of bad luck?” – Katherine Homuth, Sheertex CEO
Easily torn nylon tights are a common and immensely frustrating issue for wearers. In 2017, Canadian Katherine Homuth founded Sheertex with the goal of developing the world’s first pair of pantyhose that is both sheer and tear resistant. The next year, the Sheertex pantyhose (then called “Sheerly Genius”) was named one of TIME’s Best Inventions. Homuth’s success has been recognized by investors as well as consumers—the Montreal based-company has raised $44-million USD since its founding, and saw a 300% increase in year-over-year sales in 2020. Notably, all this success is built on a single patent and a single trade secret.
Until now, tights were either sheer or strong, not both; Sheertex is the first sheer pantyhose to be unbreakable and sheer. Sheertex hose are made with Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE), a polymer which is commonly found in climbing and sailing equipment, and in bullet-proof vests. The polymer itself is not new, but the combination of UHMWPE and stretch fibers that makes up the Sheertex knit is the subject of its first and, so far, only issued patent (US Patent No. 10,954,612, entitled “Rip Resistant, Non-Pilling Fine Knit Garments”). That patent, claiming priority back to 2017, was only issued in March 2021. Corresponding patent applications are still pending in several jurisdictions. In other words, until recently, Sheertex had no granted patents at all. However, their strategic early filing allowed them to expand and develop by leveraging their patent-pending status.
However, this patent is not Sheertex’s only asset. In the early days of its development, Sheertex discovered that traditional hosiery machines could not handle the super-strong knit used. Sheertex developed a proprietary manufacturing process for its products. As far as we know, this process, and its surrounding elements, have never been patented. Given that patented technology becomes part of the public domain after 20 years, protecting the manufacturing process as a trade secret should allow Sheertex to continue to dominate the market for decades to come.
Founded in 2013 by Joanna Griffiths, Knix is a Toronto-based apparel and undergarment brand known for its innovative menstruation underwear. The original tampon patent (US Patent No. 1,926,900) was filed almost a century ago, and innovations to this technology have been minimal. Much like Sheertex, Knix’s innovations and business practices in an underserved market has been rewarded by investors and consumers alike. As of mid-May 2021, Knix had raised over $53-million in outside funding and annualized sales had surpassed $100-million.
Knix claims that its absorbent menstruation underwear product holds eight (8) tampons’ worth of fluid and is leak-resistant. This underwear product was the subject of Knix’s first patent, “Absorbent Garment” (US Patent No. 10,441,480). Since then, the company has applied its patented technology to assorted styles of underwear and has expanded its brand into related apparel and loungewear markets.
Additionally, in 2016, Knix changed its business model from wholesale to direct-to-consumer, pulling out of third-party retail stores. As the company looks to expand its product offerings and its sales channels, strategically protecting and leveraging IP will be crucial to its business. Further innovation and strategic IP use should continue to serve Knix well as it expands.
The successes of Spanx, Skims, Sheertex, and Knix are due, in large part, to their identification of significant market gaps that could be revolutionized with a small but well-thought-out IP portfolio. By targeting traditionally female and traditionally under-served market segments, these companies have built strong brands using strategically placed and powerful IP rights.
Protecting their innovations early, and making smart business decisions, enabled these consumer-product companies to establish their brand and customer base. For instance, if Sheertex had not applied for patent protection for its knit before commercialization, a more-established hosiery brand might easily have swept in to sell the unbreakable sheer tight. As we can see, a properly positioned patent application can be worth an entire business—and then some!
For more information about how to protect your inventions, please contact our experts at BRION RAFFOUL LLP.