The first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word biotechnology probably isn’t a high-performance snow ski. But when biotech startup Checkerspot considered how to apply its proprietary microalgae-derived oils, it quickly settled on outdoor recreation. It didn’t hurt that cofounder and CEO Charles Dimmler is a lifelong backcountry skier and that many at Checkerspot are outdoor enthusiasts.
“It’s a lot better from a business-building perspective to target high-value applications,” says Dimmler, who believes consumers of outdoor recreation equipment care deeply about product materials, are willing to pay for higher performance, and have been neglected by a petroleum-based chemicals industry that has become increasingly focused on commodities of huge scale.
Founded in 2016 by biotech vet Dimmler and molecular biologist Scott Franklin, Checkerspot leverages new biotechnologies to render new non-petroleum-based polyurethanes and coatings that outperform traditional plastics. Realizing they needed a product to demonstrate the efficacy of Checkerspot’s proprietary compounds, Dimmler brought pro skier and product designer Matt Sterbenz aboard to lead the company’s winter sports venture and launch its WNDR Alpine division. Its resulting Intention 110 backcountry ski is the winner of our 2020 Innovation by Design Award in the Sports and Recreation category.
“If you look back at the history of materials,” Dimmler says, “innovation has been characterized by what you could resource, what you could find, what was available. In the 1950s and 1960s, I would argue that the world wasn’t demanding plastic but the petroleum industry brought something to the world based on what was available.” Breakthroughs in industrial biotechnology, Dimmler says, have unlocked the potential to work with non-petroleum-based compounds that can now be produced at scale, providing product developers and designers with a slew of ecologically sustainable building blocks.
“Designers and product developers don’t feel like there are new materials and ingredients coming from the petroleum industry,” Dimmler says.
Headquartered in Berkeley, California, Checkerspot operates a design lab in Salt Lake City, and the proximity to the Wasatch Mountains allowed WNDR Alpine to perform frequent real-world prototype testing as they developed the new skis. What they discovered was that Checkerspot’s trademarked algae-based polyurethanes bonded naturally with domestically sourced aspen to create a ski that is both lighter and stronger than conventional equipment. Available to consumers via the WNDR website since late 2019 (alongside other outdoor recreation products that the WNDR team curates but doesn’t design and manufacture), the Intention 110 sold out of its most popular lengths and has garnered rave reviews from Powder, Freeskier, Men’s Journal, and other outdoor enthusiast press.
The company isn’t focusing exclusively on the $4 billion global ski equipment market. It’s also partnering with the Swiss-based specialty chemical company Beyond Surface Technologies and with W.L. Gore (makers of Gore-Tex) to develop new finishes to enhance the wicking ability of high-performance textiles. Dimmler believes Checkerspot-designed materials will also have applications in the personal care and beauty markets.
“Sustainability is not a fleeting trend,” he says. “It’s been growing in crescendo for the last 10 years, at least. Consumers are looking for things that perform better and are more sustainable.”
See more honorees from the 2020 Innovation by Design Awards here.