THE TORCH is an interview series from Entrepreneurs for Impact. We profile CEOs mitigating climate change. Our goal is to highlight their work and inspire others. As we deal with multiple crisis, from COVID and racial injustice to climate change and economic recession, we need some of this positive light in what seem like dark times. Onward and upward.
So first, I gotta ask: What’s the story with the butterfly that is featured prominently on your website?
We named the company after the Edith's Checkerspot Butterfly, which is a species of butterfly that inhabits the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This place is special because it’s our backyard and certainly an environment that many of us at the company enjoy spending time in. This species of butterfly has really been impacted by climate change. When we started the company, we knew we needed a performance benefit to achieve the post-petroleum future that we are seeking. At the same time, we didn’t want to deviate from the core focus on environmental protection and climate change mitigation that is encapsulated by our focus on and belief in this butterfly. We have incorporated as a public benefit company and have since received B-corp status.
As a company, we look to harness the billion-year-old machinery of the natural world that has been honed by evolution to provide performance benefits. So, from a molecular biology perspective, we look to leverage an organism, in algae, that has evolved to produce oil. We’re simply coaxing it to produce the types of oil that have valuable human applications. Ultimately, we look to nature for inspiration and this all results in a real reverence for the natural world and a real respect for its resiliency.
Let’s talk about some of your products and who you are serving.
We’ve developed three materials that are in the market. First, we’ve developed a textile product that we are supplying to a Swiss company, Beyond Surface Technologies, for the purpose of moisture management. This product is derived from algae-produced oil. The second material is a urethane-based composite that has been commercialized in skis produced by a subsidiary brand called WNDR Alpine. Finally, we have designed a third poured urethane product that replaces petroleum-based ABS plastic in the sidewall of skis. These are all more sustainable and efficient solutions. The manufacturing process is near zero waste due to its additive nature and certainly provides additional performance and strength-to-weight benefits.
Overall the business model is product-centric. We are vertically integrating from our molecular foundry to materials science to commercialization of products, such as the ski products. This vertical integration really provides us a competitive advantage in terms of speed to innovate and iterate. We can optimize product performance by fundamentally altering the underlying biology and chemistry with which the products are developed, thereby, improving product development efficiency. Outside of direct to consumer brand engagement, we also want to create a platform for other businesses to use this model. In that vein, we have announced partnerships with Beyond Surface Technologies, the Japanese chemical company DIC, Gore the makers of Gore-tex and a few others.
What sets you apart from competitors?
I’d start with scale. Even though the company is four years old, our technical team, and specifically, my cofounder Scott Franklin has been working with this class of organism for the better part of 20 years. Many of us at the company also spent a decade in the microalgae industry at a previous company. So, we’re building on this shared heritage of scaling microalgae to commercial applications with an economic model that allows us to be competitive in the market.
Do you view conventional petroleum based products, other algae based companies, as your competitors?
We’ve tried to focus on providing differentiated performance from new materials to compete against these incumbent technologies rather than trying to compete on scale and pure economics with these traditional petroleum derived products. Other materials have followed a similar strategy in their development. I think carbon fiber is an illustrative approach of how these new materials can provide tremendous value despite initial scale and cost limitations by finding new applications.
How has this crazy year changed your approach to playing offense and defense?
It's really been an interesting and challenging year. We have been fortunate to close our Series B round that has allowed us to be a little more opportunistic. Some of the secular trends towards outdoor activities and recreation that have been largely driven by COVID has proven to be valuable for our company and mission. For instance, we expect the skiing industry and, specifically backcountry skiing for which our skis are specially designed, to have a significant demand increase. Because we are doing a lot of the manufacturing ourselves, we’ve been insulated from some of the supply chain troubles that have afflicted some other ski brands. I think that more than anything else, 2020 has demonstrated that science and grass roots participation matters. From climate change to COVID, that point has been made emphatically. I think this realization may translate into more consumer activism, which certainly amplifies our mission and organizational goals to bring sustainability to many of the products that consumers use and enjoy.
In terms of capital raising, 2020 has been difficult for many companies, what allowed you to navigate this successfully?
We’ve really put a focus on capital efficiency, but also on design and product performance as we get to scale with some of our products. I think this year was the one in which these efforts really started to pay off. We have received acclaim from skiing product design awards and have been able to develop relationships and engage with that industry, which has certainly provided some additional credibility with investors as our vision really comes to life. This initial traction and strong execution was a great basis on which to raise additional capital, and we feel good about the capital we were able to raise as a consequence.
Do you have a story of a challenge or failure that has shaped you to this point in your career?
Indeed. The flight path of butterflies is not point A to point B. It's directionally correct but circuitous. I think this is a good model of reality. I think innovation is more about discovery than invention. My cofounder often celebrates the failure of inventive attempts as an opportunity to learn and discover another path. There is no shortage of failure as a young company, but also as human beings. Checkerspot has been fortunate, but even when we hit home runs, there are also strike outs. We started out developing a product to be used in surfboard technology, but there were a couple of obstacles technologically and for commercialization that lead to a decision to prioritize other products. But that technology is one that we still want to deliver on in the future, but we haven’t gotten there yet. The real answer is that we fail all the time, but we rationalize that failure to the service of our mission and the broad benefits we think we can provide as a company.
On the personal side, do you have any habits or books that keep you motivated and productive?
When I was in college, I fell in love with history and nonfiction. So a lot of what I read is about topics such as leadership and organizational development, and I certainly take lessons and apply them to Checkerspot. There is so much information widely available on the internet. And with that, I think we have seen a decline of the focus on centralization in favor of decentralized but effective teams. That certainly applies to our company, with teams in Berkeley and Salt Lake working independently but also collectively. I think there are a lot of through points between military strategy and these kinds of larger paradigm shifts. More generally, I’m certainly a big advocate of exercise and outdoor activity. A lot of times, I intertwine the two together. I’m a big Audible user, often on runs. I think it's important to take alone time to distress and reflect.
Are there any kind of quotations that really drive you or stick in your mind?
I had a similar kind of question on a grad school application, and because I didn’t feel that I could adequately answer it at the time, I delayed my application for a year. But I’ve come to believe in the power of change and its various facets. There is a quote from Truman, “We never know what is in store for us,” that I think encapsulates the need to forfeit certainty and be comfortable with the unknown. That’s certainly been a process over the last 17 years, but I feel that I’ve become much more comfortable in that aspect of life. The other quote that comes to mind is from Ghandi, “You must be the change you want to see in this world.” Checkerspot at its core is about realizing the vision of a post-petroleum world. I think that this vision for the future is so compelling and beneficial for everyone, from an economic growth perspective as well as an environmental protection and preservation perspective. But we don’t want to just talk about it. We want to be a part of building that future so I think this quote really speaks to that.
Photo from Jason Rosewell on Unsplash