Innovations, The Washington Post

Now on your backpack: solar panels and battery packs

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 8.14.33 PM

This BirkSun Boost Sport backpack uses solar power to recharge. (Via BirkSun)

Backpack makers like to consider their products “enablers,” company executives say, especially of active lifestyles. No matter where you go or what you do, a reliable backpack can keep your stuff safe and sound right there with you.

Now, backpacks are enabling your smartphone addiction.

Traditionally, backpacks are toted along on activities where you need to store your phone while you disconnect. That could be an afternoon spent hiking or a day at the beach or an after-work gym session. But consumers simply love their phones and tablets so much that packmakers are changing their products so devices can be used continuously.

“There’s not a single one of us that probably hasn’t had our phone die or come close to dying at least once a week,” said Jeff Popp, co-founder and product director of Co.Alition backpacks. “People do need this.”

And what would “this” be? A battery-equipped backpack, of course.

“In the past, bags filled the purpose of carrying physical objects around, but now we need a way to carry more than physical objects, like power and data,” Popp said.

His bags, which were featured on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” include both charging and data-storing features. They sell for $149, a price not quite fit for back-to-school shopping.

But the adult backpack is catching on, according to industry data. Backpacks are a $522 million business in the United States and sales are up almost 5 percent this year over last, according to market research firm NPD Group.

To vie for their share of the market, both entrenched market players like Osprey and entrepreneurs with Kickstarter pages have taken to claiming their bags are smarter or chicer or sportier than everyone else’s.

STM bags, which cost $239, have a built-in battery that is good for 15 to 20 hours of power.

“Technology is such an integral part of what we do, so we thought the merging of tech and a backpack would really complete the loop of our day,” said Adina Jacobs, co-founder and product director of Australia-based STM bags.

California-based BirkSun designs its backpacks around a 7-by-5 inch solar panel that charges — you guessed it — a built-in battery. You could also plug your backpack into the wall to recharge. They cost $249.

“With us moving to such a connected device society, I feel like we really have a differentiating factor in solar,” said Carson Finkle, BirkSun’s head of marketing and partnerships.

If these high-tech backpacks sound a bit nerdy, executives counter that it’s certainly more trendy than carrying a briefcase.

But can you really take that thing into a business meeting? Yes, backpack makers unsurprisingly argue, and they’re on a mission to spruce up their merchandise and offer them to business people of any age.

“We battle this idea of professionals thinking it’s not okay to carry a backpack because they think of a fifth-grader,” Popp said. “We’re trying to change that perception to make it professional. You can wear street clothes and it would look good. You can wear it with a suit it would look good.”

Part of that charge involves muted tones — no Power Rangers, here — and the kind of gizmos innovators will want to brag about to clients and Janice in accounting. The backpack look says, “I went hiking this weekend, and the power of the sun charged my laptop,” designers say. “Look at me. I’m cool.”

And with a fully charged phone, wearers will be able to tweet that message, as well.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2016/08/23/now-even-backpacks-will-enable-your-smartphone-addiction/

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