By Eric Peterson | Jul 15, 2020
Salt Lake City
Sterbenz helped launch WNDR Alpine after nearly 20 years running 4FRNT Skis, a first mover in the independent ski movement. He founded 4FRNT in the Lake Tahoe area in 2002 and later moved the company to Utah.
"After the sale of that brand in 2017 and a brief stayover with the acquiring company, I joined Checkerspot to help them launch a commercial line of products showcasing the use of our microalgae polyurethanes," says Sterbenz.
Based in Berkeley, California, Checkerspot launched in 2016, two years before WNDR's startup. "It's a high-performance, advanced materials startup focusing on delivering new types of oils for commercial use in different types of materials," says Xan Marshland, who works in brand development for Checkerspot and WNDR Alpine. "I started two years ago to help start a consumer outdoor brand that utilizes the unique materials that Checkerspot offers."
The company is using microalgae-derived oils to develop alternatives to "the types materials that you can get out of typical petroleum-based oil from the ground -- that's anything from carbon fiber to Kevlar to different types of plastics, polyethylene, polyurethane, and so on," he explains. "What's great about using microalgae is you can actually unlock a lot of different materials and different performance characteristics that petroleum-based materials actually could never hit."
For WNDR, Checkerspot engineered an algae-based polyurethane with ski performance in mind. "We were able to design from a product performance-based approach, thinking about exactly what performance characteristics we wanted out of this material and then reverse engineering it from the molecule up based on those performance characteristics," explains Marshland. "In the case of WNDR Alpine Skis, we were looking for better strength-to-weight ratio, better torsional stiffness, and more damping and stability with the vibrations a ski encounters."
He adds, "Over the course of a big backcountry run, you don't necessarily have the luxury of skiing perfect powder all the time. We were looking for a ski that could deliver more strength and edge hold in those kinds of scenarios."
Released in 2019, the Intention 110 backcountry ski was Checkerspot's first consumer product under the WNDR brand. The operation is now building inventory to supply a direct-to-consumer sales model that will come online in fall 2020. Pre-orders for the new Vital 100, the first reveal of the new line, opened on July 8. Sterbenz says the initial run of 280 pairs proved the concept in 2019, and 2020 production will likely be about 1,000 pairs.
Sterbenz's experience in the ski industry led him to look for not only new materials, but better manufacturing processes. When Checkerspot CEO Charles Dimmler called, he jumped at the opportunity to launch WNDR as "a springboard to create awareness" of the new materials, says Sterbenz. "He [Dimmler] was seeking someone to help him animate his vision to enter into an outdoor sporting category in consumer products with their materials."
Building a ski manufacturer around materials science cuts across the industry grain, says Sterbenz. "We just haven't seen any innovation around new materials in the construct of alpine ski hard goods in decades. Largely, that's a result of a very rigid and monopolized supply chain," he says. "When we started to look at this biotechnology platform at Checkerspot, we were able to get to the granular level to what could really be achieved at an application-specific point of view."
The platform makes for less waste and allows for more experimentation. "It's given us quite a bit of adaptability and optionality in the way in which we're designing the skis to perform not only as good as they have historically, but even better," says Sterbenz. "We have cracked the door open in terms of optionality to what has historically been a very rigid manufacturing environment and a very stale raw supply chain."
Conversely, he notes, WNDR is its own supplier. "We don't just assemble commonly found materials that exist in a wide variety of industries. We're actually performing the chemistry to convert our base algal input into a rigid material that then goes into a process of machining, profiling, and shaping into a consumer good."
WNDR's supply chain starts in Berkeley, where Checkerspot is growing the microalgae in stainless steel tanks and extracting its oil "to engineer different types of chemical precursors to materials," says Marshland.
Precursor goes to an East Coast contract manufacturer that makes it into algal polyol for use in WNDR's cores at the company's 6,600-square-foot space in Salt Lake. "We basically have polyol on tap," says Sterbenz. "We use that as a base component to our algal hard foam, which we hand-cast in heated molds into a plank dimension that we then machine and resaw into the vertical laminate composition of our wood cores." That results in algal polyurethane stringers embedded in aspen -- Marshland calls them "wood-algal composite cores" -- that are the backbone of a WNDR ski.
"We're taking things from a liquid to solid state on our premise here," notes Sterbenz. "At one side of the building, we have totes of raw polyol entering, and on the other side of the building, we have skis going out in boxes to end consumers."
Beyond manufacturing, Salt Lake is the site "of the research and development, prototyping, and testing of new materials here as well," he adds. "If we make a subtle change to the thickness of a material or the elasticity of a material, if we want to increase the density of a material, we can make those changes in a minute's time. Historically, you work around those restraints in the ski industry, whereas we leverage those opportunities."
The development cycle pivots from prototyping to testing in the winter, then production commences in the spring. "We're very much underway with production," says Sterbenz. "Internally, we have three full-time ski builders and a screenprinter doing all of the graphics work, and then we have an engineering team."
He adds, "To be part of a manufacturing environment where we are also in control of the supply chain of raw material is exquisite in our space. Honestly, we don't deserve it, but with the support of the molecular foundry in Berkeley -- they do all the research and they do all the groundwork to create that base oil that then gives us the ability to start working with a variety of chemistries to animate that material to a physical component of a ski."
Challenges: "Inventing new materials," says Sterbenz. "There is not a bio-based hard foam nor a bio-based cast urethane that exists in the world today."
Materials are rarely developed with applications in mind, he adds, but Checkerspot's model is the opposite. "We're not only developing the process, but we're also developing the materials for the application. The hard part for us is to fully characterize what it is we've created so that we can begin to democratize that innovation and share it with others."
Marshland points to the challenge of cross-discipline communication from the slopes to the lab. "Unlike pretty much any company out there, we have chemists and biologists and material scientists working under the same roof as professional athletes. That's one of the coolest things about our organization -- that we can draw from diverse backgrounds when it comes to product development -- but also in the same breath there's a certain challenge of translation."
Opportunities: "Right now, the consumers we are targeting are people who see the benefit of transparency, who need to be well-informed with their purchasing decisions," says Sterbenz. "They need to be morally aligned with the technology that they are supporting. We felt like the backcountry and outdoor community is largely underserved in terms as to what their moral expectations are and how they carry along in their lifestyle. The majority of the outdoor community is comprised of environmental advocates who are taking responsibility for their stake and contribution to how they help preserve -- or diminish -- these public lands."
New products will include splitboards "in the near future," he adds, as Checkerspot explores more opportunities in the outdoor and other industries.
"On the Checkerspot side of things, we're approaching a lot of B2B relationships," says Marshland. "Last year, we signed an agreement with W.L. Gore of Gore-Tex fame. We're also working with a company called BST on different types of fabric coatings that are made from our microalgae oils that can be either waterproofing or wicking types of coatings. We're pursuing a number of other partnerships as well currently."
Validating and transferring the technology to other companies is another opportunity. As a B Corp, Checkerspot also aims to share its innovation with other manufacturers, notes Sterbenz.
Needs: "We just need consumer participation," says Sterbenz. "We need visibility of what we're doing. We have a very small voice that, irrespective of the authenticity of our offerings, we still have to fight for recognition in a space oversaturated in my opinion with brands that are all doing the same thing. . . . We're just trying to create awareness, ultimately, that there's a real lack of eco, innovative solutions in alpine ski hard goods, and that there's brands like WNDR Alpine and technologies like Checkerspot's that are seeking to fulfill that need."
"We need to build up volume so that we can scale," he adds. "It's certainly scalable here [in Salt Lake City]. Ideally, we can just get our arms around the process of the implementation of our materials in this application and identify a contract manufacturer who has a complementary set of resources to what we possess ourselves and take on the serial production. That's a huge goal of ours."