Algae in skis? Salt Lake company believes its technology could change the snow-sports industry

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pep Fujas, vice president of marketing and product development at WNDR Alpine, talks about the construction of WNDR Alpine skis, which are made with a microalgae oil instead of petroleum, at the company's production office in Salt Lake City, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. It is the first company to use algae to make skis.

Traditionally, the skis you want to carry you into and out of the isolated and unforgiving backcountry is not the pair with algae on it. Or in it.

But a Salt Lake City ski maker would like to change your perspective on that.

WNDR Alpine is entering its second year of building backcountry skis with microalgae oil. Used in place of petroleum in the plastic of the core and sidewalls, the company says the microalgae is not just more environmentally friendly than its fossil-fuel counterpart, but also allows for less waste and better performance.

And the unique approach appears to be more than a gimmick. WNDR (pronounced “wonder”) has picked up nods from Freeskier and Backcountry magazines. And, at the end of September, it earned Fast Company’s Innovation by Design award in the first year the magazine offered a sport and recreation category.

But Matt Sterbenz gets it. A former professional skier, he was skeptical when the founders of Checkerspot, a microalgae lab based in Berkeley, Calif., approached him about building skis with a single-celled organism at the very bottom of the food chain.

“It was totally foreign,” said Sterbenz, now the company’s general manager of winter sports.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pep Fujas, vice president of marketing and product development at WNDR Alpine, examines a vat of liquid polyurethane made with microalgae oil at the ski company's production office in Salt Lake City, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. WNDR Alpine is the first to use microalgae in place of petroleum in the core and sidewalls of its skis.

Sterbenz signed on anyway, seeing it as an opportunity to meld his degree in science marketing and his background as the founder of 4FRNT Skis to potentially create a seismic shift in the ski industry.

“The goal here is that we can show people that there’s a better alternative that’s less wasteful, less harmful,” he said, “and ideally provoke a global change in building materials for ski design.”

Microbe managing

Think of Checkerspot as the microbrewery of the plastics industry.

Just as small-batch breweries cultivate yeast, the lab grows microalgae in fermentation tanks. Unlike the fuzzy green stuff found on shaded roofs or floating lakes, though, this microalgae is white. It is also loaded with oil, which in nature helps it stay buoyant in water.

A petri dish full of microalgae can grow large enough to be harvested within a week — compared to a couple hundred million years for petroleum — and is renewable. Once harvested, the oil is beaten out in a process similar to making olive oil. That oil then can be mixed with other chemicals to make myriad substances, of which the polyurethane compounds used in WNDR Alpine’s skis are just a couple.

Working directly with the chemists gives WNDR access to boutique compounds specially formulated to give the ski the characteristics the company wants. The skis' core is 41% biobased carbon, for example, while the sidewalls are 60%, allowing it to be light enough for uphill climbs but substantial enough to handle a variety of conditions. Plus, microalgae compounds have been found to be more stable in cold temperatures, unlike petroleum-based, or ABS, plastics, which can become brittle.

Xan Marshland, WNDR Alpine’s manager of brand development, said companies have typically had to design around the limitations of the handful of ABS plastics on the market.

“You can start with that performance characteristic or desired application and engineer to that, whereas previously we weren’t able to do that,” Marshland said. “We had to essentially choose from a batch of five different materials and choose the one that fit best.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Grace VanSurksum puts the edges on a ski at WNDR Alpine at the production offices at 500 West in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020.

The algae-oil compounds WNDR uses in the core and sidewalls can be poured into a form and naturally adhere to the aspen wood also found at the ski core. The company touts that helps it eliminate up to two pounds of waste per ski. It also reincorporates some of that waste back into the ski, such as using shavings in the sidewalls.

The mix is still a plastic, however, and is not biodegradable, but the company said it’s working on ways to reuse components. Plus, WNDR boasts a relatively short, domestic supply chain.

Those earth-friendly measures are what convinced Salt Lake City-based pro backcountry skier Pep Fujas to join WNDR as an athlete representative and its vice president of marketing.

“One of my fundamental values is to help us live better and hopefully [that means] slowing down climate change and the rest,” Fujas said. “But this is kind of a more practical way.”

Growing like algae

As a backcountry ski company, WNDR’s timing has been serendipitous.

The backcountry snowsports industry was already seeing an uptick when WNDR Alpine released its first model of skis, the Intention 110, in July 2019. Less than a year later, when the company’s 12 workers started preparations to roll out the Vital 100, the coronavirus pandemic shut down ski resorts and forced powderhounds to skin their way up the slopes.

That trend doesn’t look to slow any this winter. More people are seeking refuge in the outdoors while resort skiing has become considerably more complicated with the implementation of reservation systems and visitor caps.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) WNDR Alpine skis await shipment from the company's Salt Lake City offices on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020.

“Everybody is turning to the back country because they’re nervous about participating in mechanized skiing,” Sterbenz said. “And I’m like, ‘Wow, this could be really good for us.’”

As a steward of that industry, WNDR is offering anyone who buys a pair of its skis, competitively priced at roughly $700, a free backcountry education class. It is also diversifying, with plans for a splitboard snowboard in the pipeline.

But the pandemic hasn’t just brought skiers into WNDR’s orbit. Sporting goods makers of all sorts, including some whose supply chain was disrupted by the virus and the trade issues with China, have started to poke their heads into the small shop at 500 West Avenue. On a recent tour, one worker was pouring a microalgae oil mixture into channels cut into forms of wakeboards and snowboards provided by a well-known manufacturer.

WNDR Alpine is the first to use microalgae oil in a hardgood, but it isn’t proprietary about the breakthrough technology. Instead, it’s encouraging other companies to explore using microalgae in everything from tennis shoes to jackets to, yes, other brands of skis. Sterbenz explained that he believes economies of scale can lower manufacturing costs and help the planet at the same time.

Put simply, Sterbenz would like to see the industry grow like, well, algae.

“If we can seed our materials into other factories and grow it through adoption, this is gonna be very viable,” he said. “And we can have a global impact on the supply chain going forward and dramatically reduce our footprint and also dramatically increase the transparency for consumers.”