Following years of intensive research SkunkWorks Surf Co are pretty sure they have a product capable of disrupting the disposable soft surfboard market. At MSW we've been talking with them on and off for a couple of years, watching their idea grow into a robust product ready for market. We caught up with the brothers behind the boards, Ricky and Chris Martin to find out a little more.
Can you let us know a little more about yourselves? And why did you decide to start this business?
Chris Martin: I’m Chris and I am the cofounder of SkunkWorks Surf Co. My brother Ricky and I decided to start the company because we got sick of the foamies in Ricky’s surf school only lasting for a few months before they became totally unusable. Stuff just doesn’t get designed or made to last anymore and that really pisses me off.
Ricky Martin: Chris and I started SkunkWorks Surf Co. 3 years ago after all the surfboards in Alive Surf School fell apart... Again. Chris being Chris decided we should start making them here in N.Ireland and we have been full steam ahead ever since.
Your objective was to make the most robust soft-boards in the world? You feel that you have finally achieved that aim? And you are now in production?
CM: That indeed was the aim and we had no clue how long or how much work it was going to take to get to where we are now, never mind how much money. We have been prototype testing for over 2 years now and have gone through a boat load of design and material changes but with our patent pending heat bonding process and our painstakingly sourced and tested materials we are confident we have achieved our aim.
In regards to production we have been limited by our machinery as we have had not been able to make boards as quickly and precisely as we would like. This has now changed dramatically due to a 500k investment, we have 200k worth of machinery arriving including two CNC machines. Our team has doubled over the past few months to eight and everybody wants to show the world what we have created on the Causeway Coast.
In layman's terms these boards are heat bonded rather than using traditional layers of glue? How does this make them more robust? Also the 6mm desk layer sounds thicker than I imagine normal soft-boards are?
CM: Heat bonding as a concept is pretty simple. We use heat in various forms to get the surface of our materials to the temperature where it becomes tacky just before it melts away into nothing... Not easy I can promise you... This is where the science, engineering and technology comes in. Once heated to the correct temperature our foams are joined at the molecular level. Essentially this means the boards end up as one, single piece of foam. This massively improves the strength and integrity of the board.
RM: At the moment foamies are stuck together with glue, and glue hates everything surfing has to offer, temperature changes from the beach to the sea, salt water, being dragged about and being left in sunlight. The use of glue is further worsened by the poor quality materials it is used to stick together, the last 60 or 70 boards I bought for Alive were made of bog standard polystyrene. It is no surprise really that surf schools have such massive issues with current boards, most are simply not fit for purpose.
CM: As far as the deck goes we wanted a rub-free, super comfortable deck that would go easy on learners and people with joint problems or disabilities – but be strong enough to take a bunch of abuse. We emboss the deck with heat stamps so it is non-slip and the surfer does not need wax, this also provides great branding on the deck which we can customise for individual surf schools. It feels real nice under your feet when you are on a wave and our material choice combined with heat bonding means no more bubbling if it gets left out in the sun.
How's the manufacturing process going? Where are all the boards getting made?
CM: We have just moved into our new factory. It’s 15,500 square feet so it’s a whopper. It looked massive when we took it on but as all of our new machinery starts to arrive it is filling up fast. Because it was empty when we arrived we have been able to create the ideal production space, that being a loop. Everything arrives in one end of the factory then goes station to station and at the end of the day all the finished boards will come out the way the raw materials went in. This makes for a super efficient production process.
The other killer advantage is the factory is located inside the harbour which sits on the bank of the river Bann. We can actually arrive to work on a paddleboard and at the end of the day we can paddle down to the river mouth and surf the wave there.
RM: We have insisted from day 1 we would manufacture everything ourselves in Northern Ireland. There are a couple reasons for this, firstly we wanted to ensure absolute control over everything from the purchasing of materials to the final product leaving the factory. How can you have quality control when your product is being manufactured on the other side of the world? Secondly we want to show that it is still possible to manufacture in the UK and Ireland. Let's start something special, create local jobs and support the local economy. There were so many people in our ear suggesting moving everything to China as we would more profitable... No chance, we are staying put.
Have you got any idea how many soft-boards are produced annually globally?
RM: I have done a huge amount of research in this. We needed to find out if we had a viable business in the first place and, as you can imagine, investors were very keen to establish the size of the market. Industry information was lacking in this area but from my own research I looked into how many surf schools there are globally and the average amount of boards each school has. It became very obvious very quickly there are 100,000+ soft boards sold each year to surf schools alone never mind the individual surfer. Soft paddleboards are a market of their own and are sold in equally high numbers, it is the fastest growing sport in the world.
And how often will a surf school for example replace a standard board. And how long would you hope one of yours would last by comparison?
RM: At the moment schools are lucky to get two seasons out of a board. I am in the middle of a trip to try and meet every school in the UK and Ireland and I have heard so many horror stories...one poor guy bought 20 boards in June this year and about half of them are unusable already. I am taking preorders from surf schools and the fact that over 200 boards have already been ordered shows everyone is ready for a long awaited change.
We are very wary of telling porkies so do not want to put a timeline on our own boards as it would be a guess. We have had our materials tested in a materials lab which has proven they are up to 300 percent stronger than many of our competitors and all of our in house testing falls in line with this. We have also had massive help from Northern Ireland Science Park, Northern Ireland Polymers Association, Queens University and NRC... We were even Skyping the guys who do the testing for NASA in California. All I can promise is that we could not have put more research into what we are doing. They have been in my school for two full seasons and look like they have just come off the production line, bar a few scratches!
In terms of price will there be a premium attached to European production and increased longevity?
RM: Pricing is something we have put a lot of thought into. While as a business we have to be profitable and continue to grow we are very aware of being fairly priced too. As a surf school owner I am well aware of the cash flow issues small seasonal businesses have and we want our boards to be accessible to everyone. We have come in slightly above midrange prices which we think is fair for everyone.
Can you tell us a little about the environmentally friendly aspects of your business?
RM: We believe we are manufacturing the most ecofriendly soft surfboards and paddleboards in the world. Our deck and rail foam are over 75 percent more Eco friendly in the way they are produced compared to our competitors and our core is already made up of 30 percent recycled material when we receive it, as well as being 100 percent recyclable once it becomes the core of our board. Our slick is the same too, totally recyclable, 100 percent. In Northern Ireland all of our scrap and excess material is picked up each week from the factory and recycled so nothing hits the skip. Also, the less often you need to replace each board the better. Have you ever googled how long it takes for polystyrene to degrade... some research shows it simply does not. Shocking! That’s why we don’t touch the stuff.
What major issues / roadblocks have you faced on your road here? I know we've been chatting about this project for a couple of years.
CM: Money, money, money. We have been really fortunate when it comes to funding but money is always the biggest issue. We know from other business that taking the time to find where the money is to support innovation and taking the time to write killer applications is the most important thing you can do when you need start up cash. We have had two proof of concept grants that allowed us to start the business and then we got R&D grants from Invest Northern Ireland, altogether 150k. This meant we could test materials and build our own machinery then begin to prototype and test.
Once we knew we had a product worthy of investment we went out to find it. This meant a lot of pitching, we even pitched to Richard Branson. Ricky loves pitching and is damn good at it, so without him we would have taken much longer to find the money we needed. We now have the best investors ever, they love the product and the business and most important they believe in us and what we are doing. They have teamed up with Invest Northern Ireland to give us the £500,000 we needed to make it all a reality.
You have a few board models – who is going to be surfing one of your boards? And in what conditions?
CM: Yeah we have a range now that will appeal to the entire surf community. From people with disabilities to learners to the best surfers out there we will have boards to suit everybody. Our wee shortboard is designed for kids to learn on but also for advanced surfers to surf small days so they can paddle in easy with extra volume, then be able to carve it up with the awesome shape straight out of the brain of our in house shaper Conn Osborne. We are getting a SW team together at the moment full of Ireland's top shredders, they have been ripping apart some slabs on the 6’ safe in the knowledge it doesn’t break every time they have a wipeout.
Our 8ft and 9ft will be the surf school workhorses with our crossovers giving the option to surf or paddle board depending on conditions. If the surf goes flat, no worries, especially for a surf school, just take everybody out Supping. Our paddleboards have been designed to be as much of an all rounder as possible. Shorter than most at 9ft 6” but with plenty of volume you will be able to store and transport them more easily and can paddle flat rivers or take it to the surf zone.
Where would you like to see the company in five years time?
CM: I want to see the company being a global brand in five years. I don’t mean we want to sell out and get as rich as possible. I want to show the people of the U.K, Ireland and Europe that we can manufacture products here and make money doing it. I want to encourage other people to bring manufacturing back and stop getting everything made in the Far East.
I want SkunkWorks Surf Co to have gained a reputation as a company that has zero BS and is known for quality products that last, while being made in as Eco friendly a way as possible. We have a whole heap of other R&D that’s always going on in the background and have timelines for several new products for over the next few years. We can’t go into too much detail but there are improvements that will be made to the way leashes and wetsuits are made and manufactured and what they are made of too.
Interested? Boards are available for pre-order here