Tom Gray: Exploring the scientific mind behind Gore-Tex’s latest technology

Tom Gray leads the team behind the new Gore-Tex Pro. The updated waterproof-breathable material making its debut at Winter Market is said to be 28 percent more breathable than its previous iteration, without any sacrifice to waterproof protection.
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Tom Gray leads the team behind the new Gore-Tex Pro. The updated waterproof-breathable material making its debut at Winter Market is said to be 28 percent more breathable than its previous iteration, without any sacrifice to waterproof protection.

A 17-year Gore veteran, Gray’s background in engineering and materials science offers a unique vantage point on the technology behind some of the most innovative, rugged and extreme products on the show floor.

You’ve been with Gore a long time, and worked to develop a number of products. What’s special about the outdoor industry projects?
It’s the people you get to work with and the environments you spend time in while trying to understand the conditions the product must survive. People associated with the outdoor industry tend to be humble, whether they’re a rock star athlete or the president of a big company. To me, that’s really cool. We get to visit beautiful locations, with the best Mother Nature has to offer. The other great part of what we do at Gore is to create products that allow people to enjoy the outdoors and keep fit for life.

Tell us a little bit about the collaborative design process that goes on between Gore and its manufacturing partners.
It is a pretty elaborate thing. We first seek input from end-users about unmet needs — for this product, people who spend a lot of time in high alpine environments. Themes develop around desired improvements. Those get built into our plans, which we share with wholesale brands to understand their needs for future styles. The accumulated knowledge provides us with the basis to build performance criteria into the membrane technology, and also seek high-performance textiles or develop new constructions to deliver against other characteristics such as abrasion resistance, hand or interlayer frictional characteristics of our laminates. By working together, we hope to better address the needs of consumers, and ultimately delight them.

How did the branding discussions go? Why stick with “Gore-Tex Pro” for a product that marks some significant improvements over the last generation?
Gore-Tex Pro is a name that is trusted and known for its premium performance. Many consumers, wholesale brands and retailers did not want to see it go. The Gore-Tex Pro name describes well to consumers the type of end-use that this product is targeted to meet. Ultimately, we decided to keep it simple.

The reincarnation of Gore-Tex Pro has been four-and-a-half years in the making — and you’ve been on the team since day one. What’s it like to see it on the show floor?
It’s an amazing feeling. Having spent so many hours working on all aspects of the product from conception to commercialization — details few could imagine — to see it in styles on racks proudly displayed by fabulous brands is great for me and my many teammates.

What are your favorite things about attending Outdoor Retailer?
There are many, but one of the best things for me is the opportunity to meet multiple customers and retailers in a short time frame. It provides the opportunity to see new trends developing in the outdoor space. Those can be used to fuel future product concepts. Walking the show gives you a sense of the hot items for the next season, and provides the opportunity to see full lines of product from so many brands. The brands have to pull everything together for these shows, and it looks awesome. And the location provides the opportunity to get out, play and try products.

Can you share a bit about your background and expertise?
My education wasn’t necessarily a direct fit for this business. I’m a ceramic engineer by training, but over the past 30 years have been involved with research and product development for a number of companies. I started developing high temperature-resistant ceramics for use in the steel and automotive industries, then worked with composites of metals and ceramics for use in lightweight, super-rigid structures particularly useful in semiconductor manufacturing equipment. I came to Gore about 17 years ago and developed dental floss products. Yep, that’s right, dental floss. Eventually I landed in our consumer fabrics business and have been working there for the past five years.

How does one become an innovator in your business?
To become an innovator in our business you need to seek product performance understanding — get involved in the activities and find knowledgeable, articulate users. You have to listen when those users explain what’s working and what’s not. You have to paint and deliver a picture of how a new product will be good for business and deliver for consumers. We use a number of stage gate processes to minimize risk, but it may require doing things on your own for a while to show you’re willing to put in your own sweat and tears. Eventually, if the concept stands up to scrutiny from your peers, things fall into place.

--Megan Mulligan

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