Innovation
When Fashion Saves Lives: Daymond John Discusses the Lab Coat of the Future
This month, the celebrity entrepreneur steps away from the shark tank to partner with Johnson & Johnson Innovation on a healthcare project that hits close to home.
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“When I see someone in a lab coat, I see someone who is changing lives,” says Daymond John.

The creator behind the FUBU clothing empire—and Shark on ABC’s four-time Emmy Award-winning investment reality series Shark Tank—knows a thing or two about the importance of presentation. And, as a thyroid cancer survivor, John has spent a good deal of time around those who regularly don lab coats.

That savvy is sure to come in handy in his new role as a judge for the Champions of Science “What’s New” Lab Coat of the Future QuickFire Challenge, which is tasking entrepreneurs with redesigning one of science’s oldest conventions—the white lab coat—for the 21st century, with an emphasis on wearable technology.

The winner, to be announced by John at a live event March 21 at the New York Genome Center, home of the soon-to-open JLABS @ NYC, will receive a $50,000 grant, as well as mentorship from Johnson & Johnson Innovation, to help bring their bright idea to market.

We sat down with John to see what he’s looking for in the contestants’ concepts—and how his own experiences with cancer have changed his approach to personal health.

Q:

What do you think will be different about judging the Lab Coat of the Future Challenge, compared to your role on Shark Tank?

A:

When people are enthusiastic about their product, that's amazing—and even better when that product solves an everyday problem. But I think this lab coat is going to need to be much more innovative.

Listen, FUBU didn't solve too many scientific issues. I'm sorry to break it to people, but my clothes probably haven’t made them live any better or longer. There’s an opportunity in this challenge to create something both innovative and practical using some kind of wearable technology. We're looking for devices and smart fabrics that maybe can detect your body temperature or your exposure to a dangerous chemical. A lab coat that could alert the wearer to a problem—I think that would be amazing.

And, obviously, that technology could make its way outside of the lab, too. Are factory workers or hair salon employees being exposed to something that could affect their health? Could this lab coat be a starting point? And that's just coming from me. I'm a T-shirt maker! Think about what some geniuses will come up with.

I love coming in open—with a clear, free mindset. I want to have an “aha!” moment when I see the winner.

Q:

There's something very official and authoritative about a lab coat—but it sure lacks personality, and it's not exactly a flattering shape. How important is style here?

A:

If you want to look at it from a fashion standpoint, think of chefs’ whites. They didn't look so great either in the past, and then they started hooking up chefs with some colorful or black uniforms, doing them in an Army dress uniform style—and you're like, "Wow, I'd wear that!"

So, yes, I think the contestants could do that with lab coats, but the main issue is going to be: "What problem is this solving? How is this design helping the wearer?"

That's what entrepreneurs do every day. We ask why all the time in our businesses: Why aren't sales as high as they were before? But what we don't ask 'why' about is our own health.

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Q:

You've been outspoken about your thyroid cancer battle and the importance of getting checkups, even if you seem to be in good health. Looking back, were there symptoms you just weren't taking seriously?

A:

I think the symptom that I wasn't taking seriously was a lack of energy. I was replacing my lack of natural energy with caffeine and energy drinks. What I should have been doing—and what I eventually did—was ask “why?”

I would think: I’m tired. But I go hard! No problem, I’ll just make sure I get eight hours of sleep. OK, now, after I keep getting eight hours, I still don't feel more energetic—what's wrong? Is it my nutrition? Is it my blood sugar? I've got to keep asking why until I know why.

That's what entrepreneurs do every day. We ask why all the time in our businesses: Why aren't sales as high as they were before? Why does our inventory cost so much? But what we don't ask “why” about is our own health.

How is it that we are so disciplined or eager to improve business that we ask “why,” but we don't do this exact thing when it comes to the most vital aspect of our life?

Q:

Statistically, men don't see their doctors nearly as regularly as women. Did your experience make you push any reluctant male friends and family to keep up with regular physicals?

A:

My experience made me push everybody. I didn't have to tell people about my diagnosis. I decided to go public to push every single person that will ever hear my voice toward taking their health more seriously.

Know what resources are out there. There is a lot of free testing available if you need it—for everything from your blood pressure to type 2 diabetes.

Number two: Know what is going on in your family's history. If you know there's a history of hypertension, don’t just stick your head in the sand and go, “One day I’ll have to find out if I’m at risk."

And try to find other ways you can help yourself. For example, I try not to eat or drink acidic things, and I’ve cut down on sugar because thyroid disease feeds on it. Now, I wish I could tell you that I don't eat meat, since I'm trying not to—that I put in all the work, all the time. As much of an advocate for self-care as I am, I still have to do more myself. It's a constant education, an effort.

But you know what? If you're going to binge-watch Game of Thrones, maybe you should go on a health binge sometime, too!

What it boils down to is devoting some time to your health. You deserve it.

Editor’s Note: The winner of the Lab Coat of the Future QuickFire Challenge was chosen March 21, and we asked Daymond John to share with us what he thinks of the innovation:

“I liked all three pitches, which were very valuable ideas. But I liked BioFabrics, the winner, the most—the lab coat that changes colors. [BioFabrics is designing smart lab coats that use biotechnology to detect and analyze pathogens and toxins—such as in the Zika and Ebola viruses—and then alert the wearer by changing colors or glowing.]

Whether you know it or not, with this innovation, someone else can tell if you’ve been contaminated and bring it to your attention—helping protect you and hopefully the people around you, as well.”

The Lab Coat of the Future finalists went head-to-head in a Shark Tank-style event featuring Daymond John.

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