How MAS Holdings became one of Asia’s most innovative companies

Some of MAS’ Twinery team. Standing, left to right: Ranil Vitarana, Chief Innovation Officer, MAS Holdings, Dineli Jayasekera, Lead, Human Resources, and Dilru Ratnaweera, Lead, Technology Development Seated, left to right: Nishika Aponso, Lead, Maternity Innovation, and Tiasha Renganathan, Lead, Moderncraft

In 2020 over 11% of MAS Holdings’ revenue was earned from innovative products. Here is how an apparel manufacturer made that extraordinary transformation

Of the world’s elite races, Boston’s annual marathon is legendary. Because the race’s early stages winds through a residential area where streets are narrow, its participants are limited unlike other marathons. The course is also notorious for its elevation changes, which includes ‘Heartbreak Hill’ an almost kilometer long incline close to the finish line. Difficult to meet qualifying times for Boston admit only committed marathoners; so, an ideal staging ground to demonstrate a world class active compression device that aids recovery after exercise.

Sri Lankan apparel and textile maker MAS Holdings did just that. The company set up demo areas at the start and end zones of major marathons at Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. It was attempting to have elite runners introduced to SPRYNG, its active compression device brand.

The SPRYNG device secured around the calf muscles with a hook and loop fastner aids recovery with its wave like pattern of pneumatic powered massaging, isn’t an item of clothing at all, unlike most of everything else MAS sells. Since its battery powered, a wearer can move about without limitations of wires. Compared to competitor products, SPRYNG is smaller, more effective, looks good and is easily handled; and should have found a ready audience among elite marathoners.

Instead, over three months MAS sold just four units at 125 dollars a pair. “We invested behind it and, it hadn’t worked for us, because no one seemed interested,” recalls MAS Holdings Chief Innovation Officer Ranil Vitarana about the outlook then. “A lot of people would have admitted then, that there just wasn’t a market for this product.” Instead Vitarana and the teams at MAS’ ‘Twinery’, an outfit leading innovation within the group, decided to crowdfund for SPRYNG on KickStarter and IndieGOGO to get the product noticed and gain street cred, although MAS didn’t lack investment capital. The two campaigns raised over a million dollars in 2019.

SPRYNG incorporates electronics and batteries, where MAS doesn’t specialise. The objective of a partnerships with electronics producers is twofold. First, to obtain the electronics that MAS didn’t produce and second to gain brand credibility that comes from partnering a top tier company.

Over the years in the wearable tech area in particular, Twinery has partnered many companies for their technology. MAS Holdings, a private company, had revenue of 2 billion dollars in 2019 making the million dollars that SPRYNG earned in 2019 somewhat small but relevant for its grander strategy.

Their next level challenge was to lower costs. An expensive product can be commercialized, but to scale it, the item must be affordable. The product is now available online at spryngme.com. “We did a million dollars turnover last year,” Vitarana says about traction since the crowdfunding success. According to the product website, over 10,000 units have been sold so far.

MAS’ founder and now Chairman Mahesh Amalean would rhetorically ask what the difference was between invention and innovation, suggesting that innovation was invention coupled with market adoption.

Twinery, formerly known as MAS Innovation, aims to do just that: not just innovate but create products that people want to buy. It was launched in 2013 combining research and development units from within the organisation. In the last couple of years innovative products developed at Twinery have met the ultimate test of market adoption.

It’s tempting to dismiss as breathless such claims of MAS’ innovation being world beating. However, since 2018 MAS has launched or are in advanced stages of unveiling innovative products that blur the lines of what an apparel, tech or a healthcare company maybe expected to launch.

Twinery’s Silicon Valley startup like offices in a remodeled Colombo warehouse is the center for MAS Holdings blurring lines between clothing manufacture, technology integration, and collaborator with academia, venture capital and other startups from around the world. Vitarana says 11 percent of MAS’ revenue in 2020 came from innovative products. It aims to raise this to 20 percent in the next few years. That success is now getting noticed.

MAS’ founder and now Chairman Mahesh Amalean would rhetorically ask what the difference was between invention and innovation, suggesting that innovation was invention coupled with market adoption

Twinery was recently recognised by Clarivate, a former intellectual property and science division of Thomson Reuters, for the inventions and innovation it has developed in the textile industry.

MAS Holdings is the first company in Sri Lanka to receive Clarivate’s most influential innovator award in South and South East Asia, and also the first-ever apparel manufacturer in the world to receive it.

Clarivate tracks scientific advances and patents around the world. It then independently selects and awards entities across various sectors for their R&D against the number of patents those entities have for their innovations and the quality of the inventions. MAS Holdings is the first company in Sri Lanka to receive Clarivate’s most influential innovator award in South and South East Asia, but also the first ever apparel manufacturer in the world to receive it.

For its most recent awards Clarivate used data for 235 organizations tracking them from 2014 to 2018 and it was narrowed down to 28 including MAS.

Among the top 28 who won the awards in 2021 were the National University of Singapore, The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, India; Petronas, Malaysia; Siam Cement Group, Thailand; Indian Oil Corporation; Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited and the Welspun Group, India. Industrial groups like India’s TATA, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd have also won in the past. MAS has a portfolio of 64 patent families with 170 applications filed in the USA, UK, Europe, China, Japan and Australia.

The innovations at MAS predominantly incorporate electronics in to textile and apparel. Realising it will be unable to compete for much longer as an efficient but low-cost manufacturer, MAS set a course to become one of the most innovative companies in the world in the areas of apparel and textiles.

Innovation isn’t invention. Novelty and function of some sort is critical but it will often involve existing ideas, materials and technology from some other industry. MAS Holdings’ 2 billion dollar revenue is mostly earned manufacturing sportswear, lingerie and textiles.

It designs, manufactures and manages supply chain for some world leading apparel brands including Nike and Victoria’s Secret. Leading manufacturing companies, in any industry, have maintained their position by innovating, specially once scale-related gains start fading. Founded in 1984 and incorporated as MAS Holdings in 1987, the company scaled, then introduced process improvements such as lean manufacturing in a second wave and is now fixated on being a global innovation leader as a competitive advantage.

However, the popular notion of innovation – as something done by men wearing white lab coats – isolated from the rest of the organisation is outdated. MAS also established a vertically integrated R&D division when it decided in 2007 that innovation must be a competitive advantage. Despite a focused effort MAS was unable to commercialise fast enough. Their early prototypes of products they figured consumers will want, didn’t find traction.

The realisation why early innovation efforts weren’t yielding fast enough results became obvious following visits to Facebook, Google and old guards like 3M, in a tour of Silicon Valley’s most innovative companies by its senior leadership team. They realised success wasn’t merely about recruiting the right people to take product to the market, but that they needed to build an ecosystem. By 2013, MAS’ innovation efforts were disenchanted despite the pots of research money at its disposal, because the process was slow and insular.

As the top end of the apparel industry was becoming knowledge-based, research and development had to give way to a more open and democratic innovation model. Clever ideas have always been around, especially among consumers, but siloed company research structures were too closed to pick them up.

Moving to an open approach to innovation proved more effective. Insights can then come from bright sparks anywhere, as they soon found out. Products that target women (Femtech) like apparel that have functional use during pregnancy, periods, menopause or urinary incontinence are also launched. It’s also innovating in healthcare industry related products.

Twinery breakthroughs have included products for athletes to improve performance like the active compression device SPRYNG. Tiasha Renganathan, who joined MAS 11 years ago, heads the wearables products or Moderncraft, an area that is furthest away from MAS’ core business.

“We’ve manufactured intimate apparel for a long time and around 70% of our workforce are women. So, introducing Femtech was an opportunity close to our core, plus there was a growing market need. But wearable tech is away from our core. But we believed that the future of clothing was going to be intelligent and that this might be an opportunity,” says Renganathan.

Until recently the consumer experience with wearable technology has been poor admits Renganathan. A first generation of devices from around five years ago were buggy and unreliable.

The current crop of wearable tech products developed at Twinery in collaboration or partnership with universities and companies have a clear differentiator. “This generation is successful because they are at the intersection of soft-goods and textiles with intelligent and smart devices,” contends Renganathan, showing off a sleep tracker worn on the forehead. The membrane on its headband is soft, flexible and attractive.

One of the challenges in wearable tech is that hard goods like motors and batteries on sports apparel its developing don’t mix well with water. Apparel needs to withstand at least 50 wash cycles. MAS has innovated in collaboration with companies like Flex, the world’s third largest OEM electronics maker, in order to address these challenges in some of its products.

In retail-speak, an apparel category called soft goods exists, which includes bedding and textiles too. Hard goods encompass a broad range from furniture to electronics. The intersection between hard and soft goods is an area with plenty of innovation scope which the company is exploring around wearable tech. Renganathan does not name for whom MAS has developed the textile membrane incorporating sensors, but it’s a reflection of the future for MAS of developing products. An approach now called Open Innovation.

Anupama Dias Abayagunawardene, is a Senior Legal Counsel
specialising in Intellectual Property at MAS Holdings

Although the term is loosely used, most innovation isn’t entirely new nor does it always involve technology. Successful companies create value by combining their knowledge, with those of their suppliers, customers and consumers. This has always been the case.

The intersection between hard and soft goods is an area with plenty of innovation scope which the company is exploring around wearable tech

The idea of open innovation extends this, emphasizing it over the decreasingly relevant corporate R&D lab. They will attract collaborators from universities, suppliers and outside investors by offering a share of rewards. MAS has a long history of joint ventures and collaboration with customers who include the biggest apparel brands in the world like Limited Brands, owners of Victoria’s Secret, Nike and PVH, the owners of several brands including Calvin Kline & Tommy Hilfiger, couldn’t have fully prepared the company for the myriad cultural clashes.

Commercialising innovation can happen in one of three ways for MAS. The first is an investment and partnering a company with technology. Licensing a technology to industries other than apparel, a long-term aim, is a second option. Providing innovative solutions to existing customers is the third. Normally contract manufacturers won’t launch brands as it can be seen as competing or as a threat to those owned by their clients. It took MAS Holdings twenty years since founding to overcome this when in 2007 it launched a lingerie brand in India.

It continued manufacturing for competitors’ products sold in the region for a while after. During the following decade its brand Amante was launched across South Asia. In 2014, MAS Brands, the unit behind Amante, gained a controlling stake of Ultimo a designer lingerie brand built by Scottish entrepreneur Michelle Mone.

Traditionally, apparel manufacturing is a family business in emerging markets where cheap labour is a competitive advantage. Most such companies don’t even hire professionals. Launching brands is beyond small economy apparel business capability; lacking vision, skills and a risk appetite. Even in Sri Lanka, hundreds of companies have folded or sold out to a larger player like MAS, as their cost advantage disappeared.

MAS’ success isn’t just due to scale; although at over 93,000 employees in 16 counties it is massive by global standards. At Twinery, innovation fused with vision, capability and a risk appetite are building global brands. This combination is unproven or often unavailable at large apparel companies elsewhere in the world.

Twinery’s spring in its step
SPRYNG is an active compression device used to speed up recovery after exercise or sports. The device can speed up recovery by almost three times. It wraps around the calf muscles and is secured with Velcro. Its Wavetec compression pattern of pneumatic powered messaging increases the rate at which blood is circulated to the heart. It isn’t an item of clothing at all, unlike most everything else MAS sells. Since it’s battery-powered, a wearer can move about without the restrictions of wires. Compared to competitor products, SPRYNG is smaller, more effective, looks good and is easily handled according to MAS.

Ranil Vitarana, who also heads Twinery as part of his responsibilities as Chief Innovation Officer, says that the opportunity to develop intellectual property, license or sell it at some point in the future, are all paths to create value. Anupama Dias Abayagunawardene, MAS’ Senior Legal Counsel for Intellectual Property points out that IP is a strategic differentiator at the company.

However, maintaining an IP advantage in a company with an open innovation culture is challenging because innovation happens everywhere. “We’ve built a foundation of awareness about intellectual property,“ says Abayagunawardene about how this challenge is tackled.

“Rather than constantly having to check with the legal and IP experts, teams must understand the value that they’ve created. When teams themselves understand intellectual property, the process of filing a patent or trademark becomes much easier.”

MAS’ sales are mainly business to business. However, Vitarana says with its innovative products its partnerships can now vary. “We started to open the landscape for the business with revenue share and profit-sharing models also now part of the mix,” he says. Twinery also does product development for clients. These approaches result in a more consumer centric strategy. “Until that point, we took all our innovation direction from brands, now we’re more informed by working with consumers.”

Besides the wearable tech, an area with market acceptance is Femtech or technology targeting females. At Twinery, Nishika Aponso leads Maternity Innovation, “In our 30-year history of manufacturing underwear we’ve learned a lot about the human body. In the last five years we’ve been applying that knowledge to address health needs.” “We are one of the first companies to talk about these topics. And its now that fashion and sports brands are interested in these areas.”

MAS’ Femtech products span four areas: absorbent underwear for periods, underwear for women experiencing urinary incontinence, temperature regulating underwear for menopausal women that make hot flashes more bearable and absorbent nursing pads and bras.

“Within Femtech, we look at different stages of the female reproductive lifecycle. The four main areas being menstruation, urinary incontinence, pregnancy, and menopause,” Aponso says. Its underwear for menopausal women sold in the UK under its own Become brand has incorporated innovations and expertise already deployed across the company’s sportswear.

Although women in this group are senior in their careers and have more disposable income, the fashion industry has ignored their specific needs so far. Over 30 menopausal symptoms have been identified and around 80% of women experience hot flashes, something Twinery team decided to tackle with their sports performance apparel tech.

Women going through menopause, especially in the West, start sweating and get flushed. During a hot flash a woman may release within five minutes as much energy as normally expended during an hour-long workout. This is often followed by a cold spell and shivering. Twinery has introduced materials with wicking properties to move the sweat away from the body but retain heat.

Because conversations about menopause were easier to trigger they picked UK for the launch in 2017. Unable to find a partner MAS launched the brand by itself. Become products are available as tank tops, long sleeved tops, nightshirts and panties. Its operations are managed in Sri Lanka where its products are also made.

Meanwhile, Thinx a US company, had launched a Kickstarter campaign to make period underwear. Because MAS had been working on absorbent underwear, for urinary incontinence, it understood the challenges. Thinx underwear can replace pads. But unlike pads, period panties are washable and reusable.

MAS’ learning from Femtech has been that taboo topics hide mountains of opportunity. Today the company claims it has as unassailable lead as the most innovative company in the Femtech space. MAS’ early innovation strategy pivoted for several reasons.

One was the realization it needed to look outside for bright ideas. Since before the turn of the century open innovation has been a successful strategy. Plenty of consultants and books were able to explain why it works and how it’s done.

Adopting an open innovation approach was the first of three changes, of bringing knowledge and technology from anywhere to build innovative products. The second change was about business models.

MAS’ conventional product lines generated manufacturing revenue but with its innovation drive it is now able to add product development not only for its own units but importantly for other businesses too.

This comes from knowledge that if it cannot solve a problem on its own, why not use the reach of the internet to find out if someone else can. Product development is now offered as a service and this results in valuable intellectual property which can also be licensed or sold in the future.

The third area of change was MAS building its own brands, like Become for menopause clothing. Growth in all three strategies in the last couple of years has transformed the business. MAS’s Chief Innovation Officer Vitarana says its wearable tech business is the leading such venture worldwide.

 

Although the brightest ideas and critical insights aren’t all discovered in a lab, MAS’ laboratory at Biyagama is where everything from retrofitting machinery, adapting them to new purposes, experimenting with new raw material and process innovation, take place. However, insights driving this tinkering come not from their own efforts but from consumers.

This consumer centricity to innovation; to understand what its consumers – not the brands it manufactures on behalf of – want, MAS thinks is what will make its products wildly popular. Dilru Ratnaweera leads Twinery’s Technology Development teams based in Biyagama where some of its most ambitious ideas are tested.

“We have a criteria that our work cannot be an incremental development. Instead it must be something with potential to be big. We call these ‘searchlight projects’, because we have to match consumer needs to technology,” he says.

Intangible stuff like knowledge networks and open business models make up a growing portion of enterprise value; as evidenced by these companies creating greater shareholder value. Vitarana points out that Sri Lankan companies have differentiated themselves through cost and acquired it from elsewhere whenever technology was needed.

Vitarana suggests open innovation offers Sri Lankan companies an outstanding opportunity to build products and better integrate with global supply chains. A first step for any aspirant would be to build a thriving open innovation culture; an environment where people can achieve the extraordinary.

Dineli Jayasekera leads human resources at Twinery. “Creating this culture requires creating an environment for people to thrive. We enable them to speak out with our opendoor policies. We need to have both their personal and professional interest at heart. So, when we think of attracting, developing and retaining our people, we think of this full spectrum,” she says.

Twinery and its parent MAS Holdings have scaled innovation by wide adoption with many products, both their own and with brands of collaborators. At Twinery’s rarified air there is a sense that rules of gravity are being suspended.

The teams there are being driven to contribute a share of up to 20% of MAS Holdings revenue up from the current 11%. From a negligible amount a couple of years ago, Twinery has built a crucial revenue stream for MAS Holdings. Its recognition by Clarivate of the company’s innovation credentials is just one of many accolades its received in the last few years.

However, Vitarana points out, more than awards for scientific advances and patents, the ultimate test of success is mass adoption leading to scale. With innovation, Twinery is heading in that direction.

Product development is now offered as a service and this results in valuable intellectual property which can also be licensed or sold in the future