Author: Xan Marshland, FOW
Matt Sterbenz - a man with a mission. Teton Range, WY. FOW: Matt Sterbenz // Photo: Carson Meyer (@carsonmeyerphoto)
What was the spark of inspiration that led to WNDR Alpine?
It came from the realization that the outdoor industry was being limited by access to purpose-built, ski-specific materials.
Matt Sterbenz, ski industry legend and founder of 4FRNT skis, realized that after nearly two decades creating some of the most innovative and influential ski shapes on the market, he was being limited by the very materials he was working with. Despite the freedom to innovate on shape, he was relying on an extremely narrow variety of building materials to make skis. Why? Because nobody was making materials specifically for use in high-end skis.
Most ski building materials—plastics, fiberglass, wood, composites and carbon fiber—were never designed with ski performance in mind; they were simply bought from large-scale chemical suppliers who had designed them for industrial applications. And many of the lightest, most technologically advanced materials available were made from petroleum, with little to no regard for environmental impact.
But where there’s a compromise or a limitation, there’s an opportunity. The outdoor industry was ripe for innovation.
Matt met up with Charles Dimmler, a passionate backcountry skier and outdoor athlete, who had recently co-founded Checkerspot, a 21st century materials company utilizing biotechnology to develop new bio-based materials with superior performance characteristics. Checkerspot’s secret lay in its use of a new resource - engineered oils produced by microalgae.
But why microalgae? Simply put, microalgae offers material designers new options.
While humans have essentially exhausted all possible ways to design new materials from petroleum, the opportunity to create new and better performing materials using novel, plant-based oils was, and still is, a new frontier. Unfortunately, most of these oils would never be produced at a scale and price where they can be utilized in new materials applications. At least, not until Checkerspot’s science team came onto the scene.
Tiny, oil-filled microalgae cells, magnified 600x. Berkeley, CA. Photo: Erika Dimmler
Checkerspot's microalgae offered a solution in that they could be engineered using genes from different plants that produce these novel oils, grown in a matter of days in fermenters, where they could produce hundreds of metric tons of novel oils. These oils could be used 'as is' or modified further using chemistry, where they could be used as precursors to high performance materials.
In Checkerspot’s technology, Matt had found his answer. Checkerspot had the unique ability to empower him with never-before-seen, biobased building materials, designed specifically around the ascending and descending performance characteristics that he specified.
The pieces were coming together. Matt teamed up with Checkerspot’s science team in the summer of 2018 and got to work.
Could lab coats and microscopes help build better skis? Berkeley, CA. Scientist: Leon Parker, Senior Director of Molecular Biology and Strain Improvement // Photo: Erika Dimmler
They developed the Algal Composite ski core and integrated it into a prototype ski. The result was a backcountry ski with better stability, less chatter, and better torsional stiffness, all at a competitive weight to similar skis on the market.
Those performance gains were all Matt needed to convince him that this technology had to be shared. We launched WNDR Alpine in July of 2019 and released the Intention 110, the first production ski to utilize the Algal Composite core.
So far, our first winter has been a blur of stoke and falling snow. The excitement around our product offering has been growing, with many early adopters singing the praises of the Intention 110 as they get the ski out on snow.
We often get asked about what’s coming down the pipeline next for WNDR Alpine. Will we just rest on our laurels? Retire early?
But if you know Matt, and if you know WNDR Alpine, you know those aren’t options. We’ve built the rocket ship and are ready to blast off. You can expect a lot more from us, including new waste reduction techniques, process improvements, new materials, and of course, more equipment for backcountry explorers of all kinds.