Pep Fujas, pro skier and vice president of marketing and product development for WNDR Alpine held a yellow disc in his hand as he sat in their Salt Lake City offices. “The skis are great, but this is the kind of stuff that gets me really excited,” he said.
What he held resembled a hockey puck. Its composition held his attention: granulated base material compounded with a first of its kind bio-based polyurethane—a repurposed waste stream material still in its infancy, derived from their algae-based ski production.
This summer marks the brand’s first anniversary, one that is already primed with material innovation as they launch a new model to complement their first ski, the Intention 110. This year, they are introducing the Vital 100, featuring an updated Algal Core with their new cutting-edge Algal Wall, an algal-based cast polyurethane to replace the ABS sidewall construction.
In founder Matt Sterbenz’s short time building WNDR Alpine after joining Checkerspot, the brand’s biotech parent company, he and his team have been challenging traditional manufacturing processes in the hardgoods category. It’s a novel approach that has distilled things—in this case, algae—down to a molecular level and they are about to hit their stride, transforming what’s possible.
Last year, WNDR came to market with an Algal Core, a high-density composite derived from their micro-algae polyol. The composite was laminated left and right of a center aspen core with paulownia out over the edge—a combination that Sterbenz and Director of Manufacturing, Daniel Malmrose, arrived at through various testing as they began to challenge the ski production supply chain.
Now, the core has changed. The domestically sourced aspen now runs down the center and out over the edge. This improves the strength over the edge of the ski and also allows the brand to trace the origin of its wood—something that isn’t possible with paulownia. However, the algal polyurethane laminated in the wood core is only now part of the story.
Sterbenz carried a wood core over to me, showing the new Algal Core, though along the edge was a bright yellow hard substance. “We’ve now taken the Algal Polyol, the same base ingredient that produces the high-density laminate, flipped the chemistry and were now using it to produce another polyurethane, but a cast urethane. We’re in-molding the sidewalls.” They’re calling it the Algal Wall.
This process drastically eliminates waste production in the skis and allows the materials to bond better since it takes out the application of adding a sidewall when sandwiching together skis for production.
“By converting to a cast urethane system, we’re able to capture all of the material during molding with hardly any waste. Because with that process, we can ultimately create a variable depth channel,” says Sterbenz.
He is referring to the wood core of a ski, which, in its raw state is all one thickness and still needs to be profiled given a certain ski’s shape. However, with the urethane, they’re able to pour only as much as they need.
“Only on the final pass of milling do you expose the urethane,” he says. “There is virtually zero urethane being sucked away, so we’ve eliminated a ton of waste by the result of this application. We’ve been able to dramatically simplify the laminating procedure of the cores because all these parts are now baked into a single component.”
The crew now simply lays square-cut composites on top of a pre-assembled base and edge, adds the core with sidewall, then topsheet, and presses a ski.
As skiers we know, when you slam into a rock, often you can break the bond of an ABS sidewall and the ski, i.e. a blown sidewall. Sterbenz calls that a negative bond line—when the epoxy bond between an ABS sidewall and wood fails. That bond doesn’t exist with WNDR’s in-molding process.
“Because there is a chemical reaction, it actually draws the liquid polyurethane into the vessels of the wood creating an unbreakable bonded interface. Back when we were making 4FRNT Renegades with maple sidewalls we knew that our strength over the edge was undeniably better than anything on the market because that maple was bonding like all hell to the aspen,” says Sterbenz. “We’ve been able to achieve similar strength characteristics by utilizing two non-native materials through this chemical reaction.”
The urethane, which is 60 percent bio-based, is the best bio-based alternative in the world, according to WNDR.
“It just happens to start with us, with skis. That’s a good fortune thing,” says Sterbenz. “It could have taken off in any set of industries, it just so happens that planets aligned and backcountry skiers get to introduce this material to the world.”
Sitting down in one of their warehouse bay offices, Sterbenz and Fujas show me associated videos that helped kick-start their business-to-business platform. They have already exchanged materials and legal agreements with multiple well-known snowsports brands.
It’s a major win for WNDR, as not even three years ago Sterbenz walked around the Snowsports Industries of America trade show with a jar of algae oil—speaking to these possibilities. No one was really interested at the time. The brand will also be in EVO’s flagship stores in Seattle, Portland, and Denver available for purchase and demo.
“We’re always looking at how we can infuse more of our algal technology platform into this ski and ultimately landed on the Algal Wall,” said Sterbenz. The use of their algal polyurethane is already leading the group into different applications, like a sample tail block, which he handed me made out of 100 percent algal polyurethane, that they’re hoping to introduce in 2022, as well as repurposed material from scraps.
Walking through the other bays, we passed through screen-printing and material testing, two additional components WNDR has now taken on in-house. In the loft, we pass large bins holding granules of waste scraps, before meeting Charles Rand, the in-house Ph.D. who joined the team this winter.
A polymer scientist is hardly someone you think you’d meet at a ski production facility, but it makes total sense at WNDR. Given their parent company Checkerspot, they are privy to amazing biotechnology and far-reaching vision. Their researchers have leeway to experiment and produce products. WNDR is using these successes to try and shift the outdoor industry to be more sustainable.
The material testing bay is loaded with gadgets that test resistance, temperature, viscosity, etc. It’s where WNDR preps a lot of their base materials and also experiments with new ones. “It’s really cool when Pep comes back and says ‘This ski was good, this one wasn’t, but I don’t know what you guys did,’ and then have CJ say, ‘Oh that was this formulation,’ and then go walk it next door to manufacturing,” says Sterbenz.
“We used to talk about being able to make prototype skis within minutes of the Wasatch. Now we’re making raw materials within minutes of skiing and producing those skis within days to get back on snow with completely different material compounds. Rather than simply adding a lighter layer of glass or lighter core, or with titanal versus without. We’re using real material innovations that exceed the optionality that exists today from anyone else in the space.”
The material testing bay also houses other waste streams, and near the back of the bay next to the two giant tubs of Algal Polyol are ground up ski scraps from manufacturing which Pep pointed to. “We feel like there are ways we can grind up that material and take our waste streams and incorporate them into the next set of skis,” says CJ. Things like sawdust from the core milling head, to a nearby horse stable, and ski scraps that are ground up and chemically treated to debond the materials so they can be re-purposed. It was something that Fujas has helped steer. “His input on the overall ski design, manufacturing, and overall mindfulness of how we’re repurposing some of these waste materials, I don’t think we wouldn’t have been nearly as focused on it if we hadn’t partnered up,” notes Sterbenz.
Sterbenz explains how we as consumers have become trained to buy farm-to-table, or look for textiles that are natural organics, repurposed synthetics, or fair trade certified, but that story has really yet to be told with hardgoods. He’s hoping WNDR will be the one writing that book. “It’s cool we stumbled on bio-based oils,” he says “because it’s necessary to have polyurethanes in our skis.”
Last season, Sterbenz made a post on Instagram showing him building pairs of their Intention 110, saying he’s built quite a lot in his life, but it’s still not enough. That mentality is clear at WNDR, the current status quo isn’t good enough and they’ve been able to dismantle what they previously knew as base ingredients in skis. Through that process, they’re adding a narrower model this year to round out their offerings for different ski conditions, and finding new ways to apply their AlgalTech ski materials platform.
“The front end loading is really complex,” Sterbenz remarks to the research and experimentation it has taken to get this far. “But as of today, I’m not kidding you, we’re seeing the results. The fact that we can have three people jamming out to The Dead, building skis in a comfortable environment without any stress, sparks, smoke, or flame—and their waste is captured in a bin that’s ultimately going to be feedstock for another material. It’s remarkable.”