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

Opinion

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 lived in Hawaii for a long time, we named our company Malama Composites. Malama is a Hawaiian word meaning “to take care of” or “protect.”

Of course, if business is an engine, then money is its fuel, and even as a cleantech hybrid we still needed to fill up at the service station. We submitted an application to compete in Connect’s Cleantech Venture Roundtable, which would provide us a chance to “pitch” our company to selected venture capital investors. Connect created the roundtable as a way of helping technology innovators and entrepreneurs prepare for the VC funding process, and to get venture capital partners involved with early stage entrepreneurs.

I was so excited for Malama to be in the running for this opportunity. If we made it past the selection committees, we would be one of five companies allowed to present at the Venture Roundtable.

With coaching from our mentors and Connect’s continuing support, Christoffersen, now Malama’s CEO, and I worked with our team our team to hone our presentation. One Connect EIR who provided significant coaching was a former CEO David Saltman, said we already had the key ingredients of success. He told me Malama had a strong leadership team, a great product, and a billion-dollar market opportunity. We just needed to refine our go-to-market strategy and articulate it for investors.

The next step of the selection process involved making a presentation to a group of industry experts. But on the morning of the screening presentation Leif was unexpectedly called out of town—leaving me to make the presentation to the selection committee. I was more nervous than visiting the dentist or going to the doctor for a shot, both of which can easily make me pass out. But having our executive team together with some familiar faces from Connect in the audience helped to relieve my anxiety.

Despite my anxieties, my presentation went well. I kept within the time limit and answered product and industry questions with confidence. Several people came up to me afterwards. To my relief, I had several nice discussions, answered questions, and I even got some customer leads. Later that afternoon we learned we were one of five finalists accepted to speak at the Venture Roundtable in two weeks.

The Morrison & Foerster law firm, which was lead sponsor of the Cleantech Venture Roundtable, hosted an educational session for all five finalists that focused on the specific elements that VCs want to see. Terry Moore, who is executive director of MoFo’s Venture Network, told us: “Companies should be prepared with well-vetted and polished top-tier document packages, diligence books, and a clear IP strategy before seeking venture capital.”

After we were selected as a finalist, we rewrote and rebuilt our presentation many, many times. We researched answers for every question that had come up, or might later come up, so we could support every claim we made about our green composites.

The morning of the final presentation, Leif and I were still going over last-minute details. As our team walked into the Venture Roundtable I felt confident we had something that was worthy of the investor’s consideration. We had a new product that would build better composites and it would be better for the health of our planet. I also knew we had a great team and the support of Connect. I was just happy Leif was making the presentation.

[Editor’s note: In the weeks since CEO Christofferson made the presentation, Malama Composites reports the startup now has several promising investor and sales leads as a result of the program.]

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

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2 responses to “The Tale of the Green Surfboard: Behind the Scenes at Connect’s Cleantech Venture Roundtable”

  1. Bill GhormleyBill Ghormley says:

    As a San Diego surfer of a previous generation (the Hobie Alter and Dewey Webber era — Tamarack, Cardiff, Encinitas and Rincoln Point) this is the most exciting news I’ve heard — good luck, Malama!

    Regards, Bill Ghormley