Bringing Checkerspot’s eco-friendly skis to the shelves

Checkerspot is a high-performance materials company that designs materials at a molecular level. 

Checkerspot’s co-founders Scott Franklin and Charles Dimmler knew from the start that their goal was not only to develop the technology to produce triglyceride polymers to build new materials, but also to rapidly create a consumer brand featuring products made from the materials. 

As outdoor enthusiasts themselves, a recreational brand was the perfect fit. And choosing the initial proof-of-concept product was easy: A strong yet lightweight, flexible, and energy-damping polymer would have obvious advantages for a pair of skis, which typically use multiple types of plastic to attain these characteristics. 

But before any skis could be made, Checkerspot’s scientists needed to start at the beginning. Working alongside the ABPDU team, Franklin and his colleagues began by screening their algae strains to select the ones that produced the highest yields of oil. Then, they experimented with how to most efficiently propagate these strains at the one-liter scale. This phase alone took weeks. 

A few months later, Checkerspot came back to the ABPDU to push the technology to 300-liter fermentations – the scale needed to generate multiple kilograms of the triglycerides that are the basis of the company’s polymers. Once this scale was realized, the company had enough oil to begin creating ski prototypes. 

Currently, Checkerspot’s algae oils, which are still being produced at the 300-liter scale, are sent to a contractor in Minnesota for chemical conversion processes before being shipped to the company’s Design Lab in Salt Lake City for final conversion into polymers of the ski material. The entire ski is then fabricated at the same site. 

In July 2019, the company’s outdoor brand, WNDR Alpine, launched its first ski model, called Intention 110. “The feedback has been tremendous,” said Dimmler. “We’re enthusiastic about the potential for the brand to be able to satisfy the demand that exists not only for better-performing materials, but also materials that have a lighter environmental impact.” 

The Checkerspot team is now working to add more ski models to their line – ones made of an even higher proportion of sustainable polymers – and to develop moisture-wicking fabric coatings. They frequently return to the ABPDU to optimize their processes and expand their palette of algae-derived polymers.

“Biology unlocks this potential to enable a more intentional design of materials. And being able to make prototypes rapidly, to animate the possibilities, is really at the core of what we’re doing at Checkerspot. The ABPDU has been instrumental in showing that we can make these prototypes a reality.”

Charles Dimmler, Checkerspot co-founder

This success story was adapted from an article by Aliyah Kovner.