As anyone who has ever been pregnant can attest, bodies can change, but clothing remains stubbornly the same. What if a bra could adapt to the fluctuations of the human body? House of Anesi is a Fashion Zone-based startup that uses performance technology and smart materials to create a bra that adapts to changes in breast shape and size.

“The industry has been more focused on the looks of the bra—not on the functionality,” said co-founder Leen Al-Taher, a Ryerson industrial engineering student. “We thought this was an opportunity to work with engineers and re-engineer the bra.”

House of Anesi is one of this year’s winners of the Norman Esch Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship Awards, a competition run by the Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CEIE) that supports Ryerson engineering and architectural science students with financial assistance for their inventions, technologies and startups. Organized by CEIE at the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science, the competition is divided into three stages for projects at varying levels: Stage 1 ($5,000) for ideation, Stage 2 ($8,000) for development, and Stage 3 (up to $25,000) for market readiness.

House of Anesi has attained all three funding levels since its inception in March 2015. “Esch Stage 1 took us six months, and that was market analysis: learning about competitors, studying if it was worth pursuing,” said Jacob John, Ryerson engineering and architectural science graduate, and co-founder (with Al-Taher and FCAD grad Stephania Stefanakou) of the business.

“After that, we jumped right into ideation. We started developing our prototype, and at that time we received the Stage 2 award for prototyping. We started to come up with ways to solve our problem: a lot of women wear the wrong-sized bra; let’s find an easy way for this to work with them.”

The ideation stage led the team on a long search for materials, spanning a trip to New York and partnerships with a German-based fabric company and a strap source from Pittsburgh. Along the way, the design evolved. “At first, we weren’t going to have an underwire—we were just going to have the cup doing all the work,” said John. “We found a very special airspace-grade material and we tried working with it, but it just wasn’t technologically ready.

The current design involves a new type of underwire design, engineering to be both conforming and supportive. “We totally redesigned the underwire, and incorporating that with a special cup, we were able to get the performance,” said John.

“Each of us is responsible for a component in the bra,” said Al-Taher. “I work on the straps, Jacob works on the underwire, and Stephania works on the cup. In addition, each of us has a role: for example, I’m in charge of branding and marketing, and Jacob is in charge of accounting and legal documentation.”

The latest $25,000 in funding will go towards manufacturing and materials. “Our project is capital intensive: we need to buy a lot of fabrics and a lot of tooling before manufacturing, and all the money’s going to that,” said John. The team is raising additional funds and working with manufacturers, suppliers, and retailers with the aim of reaching the market by the end of the year.

Throughout the three-stage process the team has been mentored and supported by the Esch review committee. Committee member and partner at Ridout & Maybee LLP Charles Boulakia has provided pro bono legal advice on intellectual property and business protection.

The awards help student startups with feedback and industry introductions; all winners receive initial membership to the iBoost Zone – in many cases this membership pairs winning students with Ryerson’s other extensive learning zones.

“This team has come a long way,” says Rafik Loutfy, director of the Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “When I met the team at the Re-Engineering Fashion event, I could tell they could go places with the right help. Since then we have worked diligently in growing their idea with the CEIE, iBoost, and now the Fashion Zone. Their passion is palpable and I’m so proud of their success.”

The Fashion Zone has been key to the business’s early success, said John. “It has a lot of mentors, and monthly you can schedule meetings with people from various backgrounds. There are former buyers, talented graphic designers, and branding experts. We’ve worked with them to shape our branding strategy and our website; we got our trademark filed with a lawyer we met here.”

The networking opportunities have also helped the team verify their product. “We’ve been able to talk to women who have worked in lingerie sales for many years and ask them, ‘We’ve done all these things—is this a major differentiator in the market?’ They were able to validate it and say, ‘We’ve never seen this kind of fabric, this type of cup, this type of strap.’”

This year’s Stage 3 Esch Award winners also include Everest, an HVAC system that offers energy cost reduction using a cloud-based predictive controller; and CleanInWater, an advanced oxidation process that provides a practical solution for non-biodegradable pollutants in industrial waste water.

Since the Esch Awards were started in 2013, $1.498 million has been awarded to 183 recipients, and over 13 startups have been formed employing over 66 individuals. The next Esch Awards application deadline is June 30 at 4pm, and FEAS students can access more information and apply via D2L.

For more information on House of Anesi, visit their website. For more information on the Norman Esch Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship Awards, visit the Faculty of Engineering & Architectural Science.