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Exploradio brings you captivating stories about science worth discovering and examines powerful questions worth answering.

A Young Cleveland Entrepreneur Looks to Undo the Zipper Industry

You’re probably wearing one now.  The zipper is a ubiquitous fashion accessory whose design has remained relatively unchanged since it was invented one hundred years ago. 

But in this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair meets a young entrepreneur who’s working on a new approach that could undo the zipper industry.

When it was invented by a Swedish immigrant one hundred years ago, the zipper was simply called a hookless slide fastener.

That is until the BF Goodrich Company in Akron started using them on a new line of boots in the 1920’s.

Goodrich president Bertram Work is credited with coining the word zipper. 

zippered boots from goodrich
An ad in the 1920's features boots with the new fastener that Goodrich president Bertram Work called 'zippers'.

The name stuck, not for the boots, but for the fastener, which soon found its way into tobacco pouches, trousers, jackets, satchels, suitcases, sleeping bags, tents, purses, and a slew of other things that need clasping.

It’s a nearly $10 billion worldwide industry dominated by a handful of global companies.

But one young Clevelander believes she’s invented a new zipper that could signal the end of this familiar fastener.

In Search of a New Zipper
Tesia Thomas is founder of Zipr Shift.

Her story started two years when her rabbit decided to chew the plastic zipper on her laptop bag.

tesia thomas
Tesia Thomas is pictured with her rabbit whose gnawing habits inspired her on a two-year quest to invent a better zipper.

“He just bit right through it," says Thomas, "bit through the tape, through the coil, and I couldn’t use it.”

The mishap highlighted the limitations of current zipper technology. 

Not only is it not rabbit proof, a broken zipper is not reparable, and it’s often the weakest point of any garment or carrying case.

Thomas decided that for all the people in the past one hundred years who’ve suffered a broken zipper, the time for a better solution had come.

“I felt I could be the one to solve this problem,” she says.

She began testing zippers to better understand how to improve them.

She tried using stronger materials for the zipper tape. She bought a force meter to gage breaking strength, and a 3-D printer to make prototypes.

"I felt I could be the one to solve this problem." Tesia Thomas

She built her own extruder.

But after 18 months of experimentation she was ready to give up.

A Zipper Breakthrough
It was at this low point that Thomas experienced a eureka moment looking at a loose bit of trim in her car.

“I had to push it back in, and then I went like, ‘hmm, let me take that back off and stick it to itself and see what it does.’”

The car trim provided the inspiration for her new zipper design - two interlocking U-shaped channels that slip together for an unbreakable seal.

Imagine your jacket zipper –  instead of opening towards your shoulders, Thomas’ design opens away from your chest.

Zipr Shift's largest size zipper consists of metal clips embedded in a flexible plastic skin. Founder Tesia Thomas says the design may have military or other industrial applications.

“I felt like we had to displace the forces on the zipper in order to get the tensile strength that we needed,” says Thomas.

She has produced prototypes of several sizes, the largest is the diameter of a dime.

It’s made of U-shaped metal clips covered by flexible plastic.  Flanges on the inside create what Thomas says is an air and water-tight seal. 

Breaking into a Zip-Locked Market
It’s the kind of zipper that Dave Cadogan is interested in.  He’s the director of engineering and product development at ILC Dover, the company that put the zippers in the original Apollo space suits.

“If she can hit a lot of the targets that she’s saying with producing zippers with different materials and having them still being flexible, there’s a lot of room in the industry for that kind of advancement.”

ILC Dover also makes flood barriers, long plastic sheets that need a watertight seal.

“This is one application point that would make sense for a pressure sealing zipper,” says Cadogan.

While ILC Dover is a potential customer, Tesia Thomas hasn’t always gotten a positive response from people in the industry.

“I have a very soft-spoken voice,” says Thomas.

Her gender and her youth have worked against her, says Thomas, "I’ve had manufacturers that weren’t very nice to me.”

Clear plastic reveals the flexible metal skeleton of the new zipper design. The zipper can be produced in long strips by extruding the materials.

But the 22 year-old inventor is not giving up.

Thomas has self-funded her fledgling enterprise, resisting the temptation to take on investors too early.

But she’s confident her new design will challenge the industry.

“My zipper is much stronger than any zipper currently made,” says Thomas.

She’s talked with the Department of Defense about possible military applications, she sees it as a more secure way to fasten luggage, and she’s looking into how it might suit the fashion industry.

“I want this zipper to replace all current zippers because it’s better and it’s the same cost,” she says.

After 100 years she thinks we might be ready for a new way to zip.

Jeff is your average chemist turned radio host and reporter. He currently hosts middays on WKSU and has reported extensively on science, politics, business, and the environment.