Sticking to their knitting

Published Dec 4, 2023

Wellington UniVentures first met sisters Xuxu and Aïda Amoozegar-Montero in 2021, while they were completing post-graduate degrees at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington. Pursuing PhDs in design and sociology respectively, the sisters were on a mission to revolutionise the bra industry through a novel process for creating custom fitted bras. 

Sisters Xuxu and Aïda Amoozegar-Montero

Wellington UniVentures’ commercialisation manager supporting the project, Dr Steve Lorimer, says that the sisters’ passion stood out from the start.

“We work with many brilliant Victoria University researchers who want to translate their academic work into commercial opportunities, but it’s rare to see researchers this early in their careers so focused on putting their research into practise,” says Steve.

To develop the commercialisation skills and networks to match their ambitions, Wellington UniVentures supported Xuxu and Aïda through a programme aimed at early career research entrepreneurs. The ‘Emerging Innovators’ programme is run by KiwiNet, an alliance of commercialisation professionals across New Zealand’s universities, Crown Research Institutes and other research organisations – including Wellington UniVentures – who work together to transform early-stage discoveries into products and services that deliver value for New Zealand.

“It was the perfect launching pad to get us thinking about how we could build a real business from our ideas,” says Xuxu.

Finding their niche 

After the programme, Wellington UniVentures continued to work with the sisters, alongside Xuxu’s long-term academic mentor and co-inventor Edgar Rodríguez and business advisor Viv Baartman, to secure additional KiwiNet funding.

“For the past year, we’ve been focusing on market research – doing heaps of surveys, interviews, user testing, validating our ideas and testing them with bra wearers. We now have a really good grasp of what the problem is, and how to solve it,” says Xuxu.

Talking to potential customers revealed two surprises that prompted the team to pivot their approach. The first was that the market is much bigger than they first anticipated.

“Our research initially focused on bra wearing after breast cancer surgery. It became clear that solving problems for those with the most challenges meant solving problems for everyone. Our goal shifted from a custom-fit bra for post-surgery individuals to creating a universally supportive bra for a broader audience.”

The team also found that many survivors were tired of being defined by their cancer experiences and wanted to buy the same type of bra as everyone else. “It’s an important part of their recovery journey.”

The other surprise was sustainability – or lack thereof. The bra industry is inherently wasteful, says Xuxu, because bras are made with plastics and other unsustainable materials. Also, because bras so often don’t fit well, they’re quickly thrown out and replaced.

“It’s a hugely wasteful industry, and many people said they would happily pay more for a bra that fits well, is supportive and sustainably made.”

With the problem, customer base, and solution now clear, the bra project team redefined their mission: “We’re creating custom bras for everyone – no matter your shape or journey.”

Xuxu presenting at HealthTech Week in Auckland, where the team won the HealthTech Award for Best Translational Research Project

Pitch perfect

Through their collaboration with Wellington UniVentures, the team was able to access MBIE funding administered through KiwiNet that is designed to accelerate the earliest stages of research towards commercialisation.

As an experienced hand in research commercialisation who used to sit on the KiwiNet Investment Committee, Steve was critical to securing the investment.

“If Steve hadn’t been involved it would have made the journey so much harder. He helped with our pitch deck and connected us to partners and investors. More importantly he helped us get much better prepared to stand in front of the committee and prepped us on the type of questions we might get asked,” says Xuxu.

Even with the support, it wasn’t easy. KiwiNet’s investment panel is known for grilling entrepreneurs on whether they have what it takes to run a successful business

“Despite being in early stages, the committee urged us to delve deeply into the specifics and strategic aspects of business growth, for example how were we going to scale up? With whom? What numbers and data did we have to inform our thinking? The level of detail and rigour the process required us to think through was challenging, but worthwhile.”

Preparing for launch

Preparing for launch is the team’s biggest challenge yet, but they know exactly what they need to do, thanks in part to the gruelling process of securing KiwiNet funding.

“To be investor ready, we need a working prototype that’s been tested by real people and a clear ‘go to market’ strategy,” says Xuxu.

The team has a 3D knitted bra that’s ready to wear, but there’s still work to be done behind-the-scenes. “We’re not just making a different style of bra; we’re completely transforming the way bras are made and sold.”

Some elements of the process will be familiar, though. Customers will be able to browse designs through an online shop. Once a customer places their order, their bra will be 3D knitted to fit the customer’s breast size.

The bras will be made from sustainable material and, because they are custom knitted, they will be inherently less wasteful. As the business grows, the team plans to partner with local suppliers everywhere their bras are sold, to cut down on transport-related emissions and support local economies.

“We’re ensuring that environmental and social consciousness is baked into every part of our process, from the ground up.”

As well as delivering a better bra, Xuxu says the team is keen to support women entrepreneurs in New Zealand.

“Throughout our journey, we’ve been lucky to meet so many incredible women who have inspired us, mentored us and championed our ideas. We want to be a positive force in this ecosystem by using what we’ve learned to help other women entrepreneurs realise their potential.”

Steve says the team is well on their way to achieving their goals. “It’s been a pleasure watching Xuxu, Aïda and the team grow their idea and, at the same time, their confidence as entrepreneurs. Wellington UniVentures is excited to keep supporting the team through to launch and beyond.”