Young Upstarts

All about entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, ideas, innovation, and small business.

[INTERVIEW] North Aware Founder And Creator Of The Smart Parka, Jamil Khan

smart parka

Trust a techie to reinvent how we do winter.

That’s what former software engineer Jamil Khan has done with his new company, North Aware, in manufacturing its Smart Parka. North Aware’s Smart Parka is a high-tech coat that has everything covered: Your hands and neck, with built in gloves and scarf. Your hips and legs, thanks to an extendable hemline so you can adjust how much of your body gets protected from the cold. Then, too, there are pockets galore for hats, phones, tablets and glasses.

Jamil Khan turned his focus from websites to outerwear in part out of frustration with Toronto’s famous winters. It wasn’t the winters so much (which he actually loves) but the drawbacks of traditional outerwear and its accouterments, like scarves and gloves, both remembering and having a place to stash them.

Kahn had a better idea – several, in fact – that led to the Smart Parka, the first product of North Aware that launched in 2016 with the help of a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. His concept captured the imagination of enough people that North Aware’s Kickstarter campaign raised an astonishing $2.6 million, making it one of Kickstarter’s most successful crowdfunding ever in Canada.

Khan came up with the Smart Parka concept after enjoying five Canadian winters in the years since he moved to Toronto from his native Pakistan. He actually loves winter, but found the kind of parkas available in order to get through them comfortably had drawbacks. They were expensive for starters. The lengths were either/or, so having just one wouldn’t do. Plus, he was always losing his gloves and scarves and there were never enough pockets for the things he wanted to put in them.

While Khan had no experience or even basic knowledge of how to make or manufacture clothing, he did have a lot of confidence and ingenuity, and his tech background gave him another advantage in devising the Smart Parka. As he notes, you have to be able to advance the learning curve fast in software development because changes occur at such a rapid pace.

Having advanced that curve on the Smart Parka’s design and the Kickstarter funding to help North Aware move to the manufacturing phase, he’s now learning about other issues critical to entrepreneurs. Things like negotiating distribution channels and partners and how to handle market expansions.

You had great success with North Aware’s Kickstarter campaign.  What did you take away from the experience that you think other entrepreneurs can learn from?

North Aware’s Jamil Khan: North Aware’s Kickstarter campaign really was a success and it was exciting to see that people were as enthusiastic about the idea of the Smart Parka as we were. One of the opportunities that comes with that kind of demand is meeting it in a way that aligns with the company mission. We wanted to ensure that the Smart Parka was manufactured with high-quality materials and in a manner that was in harmony with North Aware’s values and the values of our customers.  Our team worked hard to come up with innovative solutions in order to put out the best product that we could.  And I think that’s often what it takes – a combination of determination and creativity – to make that leap from a start-up to something more sustainable.

What were the three biggest challenges you faced in moving into the totally new business arena of the garment industry from software, and how did you solve them?

It was interesting, because that transition wasn’t as challenging as you might think it would be. Both software development and garment design involve problem-solving techniques and creativity – it’s just a matter of applying those skills in different ways.

I had the idea for the Smart Parka, but I needed to refine and test it. So, to my mind, that meant a process of trial-and-error: trying different designs and different features to see what worked best. Asking friends and colleagues for their opinion on certain features. Doing extensive market research to determine what the most important aspects of a winter coat were for consumers. I knew that the idea was a winner from the start and I believed wholeheartedly in the pursuit of the goal – I wanted to bring my idea to realization, and that gave me the extra impetus to learn on my own, do more research, and investigate the field of garment design. Many of the lessons I learned during my time as a software developer were helpful when I approached the project of designing and producing the Smart Parka.

You started out with an innovative mindset, and your team at North Aware supported you with their own creative ideas as you worked together to bring your ideas to fruition. How has this experience shaped your ideas on innovation and creativity, and how to foster the kind of mindset and environment where they can flourish?

I think it’s important to provide an environment where a team is free to express itself, ask questions, and try to solve problems creatively. There is often an emphasis on assembling the best team possible, giving them a project, and letting them get to work, but I think it’s also important to get the balance correct for a team and to establish helpful team behavior.

Fostering innovation and creativity might mean putting priority on team members being reliable, giving the team clear goals, making sure that their work is meaningful to them, and that their work has a discernible impact on the company and its mission. In addition, as I mentioned, it’s important that every team member knows that they have the freedom to ask questions and can feel comfortable doing do. That’s how you generate great ideas that can lead to the next breakthrough for your company.

These days, everything’s “smart” – phones, watches, now parkas. What’s next when it comes to the intersection of technology with everyday consumer goods? After your experience in leading North Aware, in your view, what factors are both fostering that kind of environment for entrepreneurial innovation here – and hindering it?  

Jamil Khan - North Aware

We’ve seen with wearables like smartwatches and fitness trackers that consumers are looking for devices that can seamlessly integrate into their lives and provide them better and more accurate information about themselves and their habits. There’s also the increased sophistication of digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, etc. and the ways that people have put those to use in their lives. I think that, once we see the Internet of Things (IoT) more fully realized, with multiple devices communicating with each other online and with users, you’ll have easy access to data of almost unimaginably high quality.

To me, the most exciting prospect of those sorts of developments is in the field of wearables: athletic wear that can provide precise motion and pulse metrics; clothing that gives haptic feedback to a runner to let them know that their pace is too quick and they might be putting themselves at risk of an injury.

In terms of what hinders or fosters innovation, I think a lot of it comes down to customer expectations and, to some degree, regulation. With respect to the former, sometimes you see inventions and developments that were ahead of their time, and consumers are simply not ready to accept those new technologies. With regulation, you see it all the time how innovations are stymied by laws that haven’t caught up with the times. All you have to do is look at the debate over autonomous vehicles–some models of which are ready for the road – to see how laws can slow down or even prevent the implementation of exciting and beneficial technologies. Communicating the benefits of innovations is always important, and that can help people adjust to those developments more quickly, which in turn can help influence regulation as well.


Young Upstarts is a business and technology blog that champions new ideas, innovation and entrepreneurship. It focuses on highlighting young people and small businesses, celebrating their vision and role in changing the world with their ideas, products and services.

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  • jean

    nice comment from Arthur. yes smart guy indeed. so smart that his company has mastered the art of ignoring those of us who have been waiting for 8months for a refund. we returned the jackets back to north aware’s warehouse at our own cost per their instructions. for whatever reason the CEO has felt it is okay to ignore our overwhelming loud pleas for our money. the only ones who seem to have made any headway or those who have screamed so loud, they were threatened with a lawsuit by north aware. read the kickstarter page: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/northaware/smarr-parka-worlds-first-complete-winter-coat/comments

    how enraged do you think we all were when we find articles like this one.

  • Arthur Brown

    I love this brilliant idea. I’m happy that the younger folks are impacting the world positively. The youths are the leaders of tomorrow and I believe it’s happening already. It’s a great pleasure to enjoy this beautiful innovation from a smart guy. Now the winter is going to be better.

  • syrth

    I have returned my jacket in December 2016 and was promised a refund. I was given excuse after excuse and then told the warehouse closed down and i would notget it until October 2017. We are now in November 2017 and I am still getting the run around by this company. Their kickstarter page is flooded by people demanding refunds and their missing meechandise. Why isnt this being addressed at all?

    • jean

      i am in the exact same boat Viviane. i feel like we are at this point just being ignored…..

  • jean

    i stand corrected..my jacket was returned Feb 2016. it’s been such a long uphill battle. customer expectation??? yeah right north aware has done little to set the right customer expectation….here i am still out the money i am owed for the jacket i returned in Feb 2016.

    • jean

      sorry misquoted myself…i returned my jacket in February 2017….its just been so long that I have lost track of time

  • jean

    great interview it all sounds rosey but I along with many others are still owed refunds for jackets we returned back to them in Feb 2017.