The Tale of the Green Surfboard: Behind the Scenes at Connect’s Cleantech Venture Roundtable

6/29/09

In December 2005, the biggest maker of polyurethane foam blanks used to make the core of surfboards (and other products) abruptly shut down—creating a huge void among Southern California surfboard makers and the composites industry.

I have worked in the composites industry for nearly 30 years and I was keenly aware of the highly toxic nature of the fiberglass composites used to make surfboards, sailboat hulls, and other products. I knew there were no environmentally friendly alternatives. I’ve seen friends and colleagues get sick and even die from continual exposure to these chemicals. So I saw the closing of Clark Foam in Laguna Niguel, CA, as my chance to change the composites world by developing cleaner and healthier ways to make composite products—and to do so with as little environmental impact as possible. I focused initially on the foam core material, but in response to customer demand, we have developed processes and sourced materials to make both the skin material and resins—all from more sustainable sources, such as bamboo, hemp, and kelp fabrics, and soy and linseed oil resins.

Malama Composites surfboard

Malama Composites surfboard

Two partners and I experimented for two years, testing various methods and formulas to develop an alternative foam product that was clean and green. Finally, we perfected our recipe, an ideal blend derived from plants. But our foam blanks are not only green—they also outperform traditional rigid polyurethane composites made from petrochemicals. So we’ve taken fossil fuels out of this part of the process altogether.

We see the market for our foam as huge and the range of our products as almost endless, but the three of us had bumped against our ceiling. We couldn’t take things to the next level on our own. We needed more money, more management experience, legal and accounting help – just about everything required to make a real business out of a good idea. A friend introduced me to Leif Christofferson, who has worked as an environmentalist for non-governmental organizations and did bio-prospecting for San Diego-based Diversa (now part of Verenium) in addition to consulting work in bio-fuels. Leif saw the opportunity immediately and soon Leif and I had assembled a team.

Our team also sought the help of Connect, the San Diego non-profit group that helps accelerate regional technology innovation by linking entrepreneurs with the business experts and resources they need to grow as a business. Through Connect’s springboard program, which provides free business mentoring and coaching, we were assigned several Entrepreneurs-In-Residence (EIR), former executives who donate their time, talent and connections to help start-up companies grow successfully. Our EIRs guided us in preparing marketing, organizational and financial plans, examining every detail and assumption we had and helping us refine our business model. The process was amazing – I felt like I was in grad school and soon we honed in on what we were as a company, where we fit in the market, how our financials made sense, and perhaps most importantly, the inherent value that this business posed to potential investors. Coming from a surf background and having … Next Page »

Ned McMahon is the founder and chief operating officer of San Diego-based Malama Composites. Follow @

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