A Salt Lake City ski company and a University of Utah science professor say their invention means you’ll never need to wax your skis again.
Their polymer-based “permanent base glide treatment” will last forever on the bases of Alpine skis and snowboards, they claim, eliminating the need for wax to reduce friction with the snow.
Phantom is the creation of DPS Skis and Jeffrey Bates, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the U. whose prior work has improved glaucoma treatments and feminine-hygiene products.
It hit the market this month with a Kickstarter sales campaign aimed at selling $35,000 in treatments, which have a suggested retail price of $99. DPS made its goal in four hours. On Wednesday, with eight days remaining in its online push, sales neared $210,000. Deliveries are scheduled before year’s end.
Easy to apply, the product has received prominent attention in industry publications gearing up for winter. Ski magazine conducted its own tests and concluded, “Phantom’s permanence and performance will change the game in ways that are hard to imagine now, but in a few years’ time, we’ll be scratching our heads wondering how we ever skied without it.”
Its headline urged “Believe the Hype” — but not all do.
Thanos Karydas of Dominator Wax Co., a longtime official supplier of wax to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and numerous national Olympic teams, wants to see more data.
“All we hear is that wax is dead. You’ll never wax again. That is some pretty grandiose claim,” Karydas said in a telephone interview.
Karydas said as a scientist, he’ll remain skeptical until he has more information about Phantom’s chemical composition, testing methodology and the results of those trial runs.
“There have been claims like this before,” he said. “They clearly haven’t signaled the end of the wax industry,” built over the last century.
‘Nobody had really cracked the nut’
Stephan Drake, founder and president of DPS Skis, said he’s used to responding to doubters because his company has been at the forefront of new technologies since it opened in 2005.
Drake grew up in New York City but developed a yen for skiing while visiting grandparents who had a condominium in Aspen. He attended Colorado College and stayed in Colorado afterward, forming the company with friends who “were perpetually chasing snow and working from our laptops.”
DPS Skis builds three types of high-end skis ($1,300 for one pair), each offering the option of five to eight shapes. A key feature is the layered “carbon-fiber sandwich” interior, designed to give the skis strength and flexibility.
DPS also took the bowed “rocker” shaping of surfboards and applied it to ever-widening snow skis, boosting flotation in powder and easing the initiation of turns.
“We were the first to market the rockered ski,” said DPS spokesman Alex Hunt. “At this point, there isn’t a company that doesn’t make a rockered ski.”
Drake and his partners eventually decided the growing company needed a headquarters. They moved to Salt Lake City in 2010 and three years later, built a ski factory at 2650 W. California Ave. The company now employs 45, including a European sales team.
“We picked Utah due to the cost of doing business. The airport is nearby and there’s also the proximity of 500 inches of snow per year,” Drake said, citing the ease of working on a pair of skis in the factory after lunch, then taking them into the mountains that afternoon to see how they perform. “This place is pretty special in terms of doing research and development.”
Drake said he became interested in looking for alternatives to wax, which has environmental impacts, remaining in the snow after sloughing off of skis. His mom helped pique his interest, sending him a news article about Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists researching hydrophobic and superhydrophobic coatings that repel water.
“I became aware of attempts to solve wax problems, mostly by some big companies in Europe,” Drake said. “Nobody had really cracked the nut.”
Then he met Jeffrey Bates.
Faith in technology
Bates specializes in the study of polymers, a broad category of natural and synthetic materials formed by chemical reactions. Natural polymers include everything from silk and wool to DNA and proteins. Synthetic versions include nylon and Teflon, polyester and polyethylene, resins and epoxies.
He’s gained some renown for helping develop superabsorbent polymers that degrade quickly, a valuable combination for sustainable feminine-hygiene products in Third World countries. Bates also realized that a form of polymer known as a hydrogel can release drugs directly to the surface of the eye, improving glaucoma treatments.
As it turns out, “the chemistry of ocular medicine is very similar” to what Drake was seeking as a replacement for wax. Bates was confident his expertise with polymerization would create a product that worked, and Drake was “wowed” by the scientist.
“There was just a cool confidence about him and faith in that technology and his ability to complement what we do,” Drake said.
Although Bates admits, “I have never skied in my entire life — and I’m from Utah,” he jumped at the chance to work with DPS.
“I really like it when people bring problems to me that haven’t been solved very well,” he said. “The science was fascinating and something I could sink my teeth into.”
Bates started by studying the superhydrophobic coating issue that had intrigued the MIT scientists. It was commonly held that “the more hydrophobic a wax surface was, the faster you’d go down the ski slope.”
But Bates determined that superhydrophobic materials didn’t shed friction-generating water droplets from a ski’s surface as well as more basic hydrophobic materials. He eventually settled on a combination that features “lots of chemicals with names people can’t pronounce.”
His polymer doesn’t melt and isn’t affected by temperature changes, which he said enhances its ability to work as efficiently on the stickiest wet snow as the driest powder. It takes a little bit of speed to activate the polymer’s gliding qualities, a requirement that has inhibited its use — for now — in cross-country skiing, with its periodic slow motions.
The hard part for Bates was finding a way to get the milky white polymer into skis and snowboards. “We had to figure how to soak it into the base and adhere there,” he said, remaining cagey about the details of his “great solution.”
There are skeptics, Bates acknowledged, “but they don’t know about material science and engineering and that this is a straightforward solution.”
‘Good luck to them’
DPS took over after that. Drake said product tests over the past year in the mountains of Utah, Chile and New Zealand validated what Bates had discovered in his lab.
“Phantom is noticeably faster than all-temperature wax in warm snow temperatures,” the company’s Kickstarter promotion said, “and provides similar levels of glide in colder snow temperature ranges.”
Karydas from Dominator Wax, who has a doctorate in polymer chemistry, plus numerous patents and publications, doesn’t think DPS and Bates have spent enough time studying their product’s performance and longterm impacts on skis and snowboards.
“Even with wax, which is a well-established technology, we test a product for two years before introducing it to the market,” he said. “Phantom is reportedly based on 1-year-old technology, so clearly, the effects on the base as it ages have not been studied.”
Karydas also questioned why DPS is selling its product to individuals through Kickstarter rather than directly to companies that manufacture ski and snowboard bases. DPS could make much more money by “selling it by the tank car,” he observed.
While Phantom may prove to have value for some segments of the snowsports market, Karydas said, he predicts it will never replace wax as the glide element of choice for competitive racers.
“My reaction is to applaud scientific efforts,” he said. “Good luck to them. There is room for all of us.”
Drake expects publicity about the treatment to increase his company’s prominence in the ski industry.
“We’re a niche company, a high-end ski maker. This is a product that appeals to a broader range of customers than would be interested in our skis,” he said. “And it opens up the whole snowboarder crowd, too. This will expose our ski product to a much broader audience.”