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Why Checkerspot’s ‘Pollinator Kit’ Won the SXSW Innovation Award

Checkerspot, an Alameda, California startup of 2016 that broke through with a microalgae polyurethane technology for skis and snowboards in its WNDR Alpine line, won the Innovation Award in Design at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas earlier this month.

Partnering with What For Design, and collaborating studio Fun Stuff Design, the winning team put together an entry called the ‘Pollinator Kit,’ based on a Series Cast Polyurethane System formulated with limited use of fossil fuels. It’s a technology that has relevant applications in the apparel and footwear world, especially in eyelets and outer-sole elements. It could also be used in zippers, fasteners and backpacks.

“We product designers find ourselves in a position where the decisions we make, and the causes we advocate for, have great consequence in the environmental impact of manufactured products,
Mitch Heinrich of What For Design said in a press release. “Getting more sustainable and better performing materials into the hands of our fellow designers has been a passion project for myself and the whole Pollinator Kit design team. It’s energizing to see that work recognized by the SXSW community.”

Heinrich brought on Dierdre Shea and Julian Goldman, the freelance designers who form Fun Stuff Design, to spearhead the effort in creating the biomaterial.

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The challenge, Shea told Sourcing Journal, was figuring out how to get the “amazing material that Checkerspot already has” into the hands of people who really want to work with biomaterials.

Awards and accolades aside, Shea and Goldman said the Pollinator Kit’s real value is how it lets product developers large and small infuse this material as a replacement for petroleum-based polyurethane in many of its applications.

On the smaller end, Shea said, designers for rock climbing gyms can use this technology for their climbing holds and skateboard companies can use them for wheels. On the larger end, Goldman said, the Pollinator Kit can work as a sort of swatch sample for more expansive use for companies currently using fossil fuel-heavy polyurethane.

The Pollinator Kit from Checkerspot, partnering with What For Design and Fun Stuff Design, won the Innovation Award at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas. Courtesy

“The design firm or design company can order this kit and they can make a mold… put this material into it and see what it looks like in their actual product,” Goldman said. Shea added, “And then they reach back to Checkerspot and say, ‘we really liked this material. How do we put it into our products at a larger scale? ‘And that is a win-win for everybody.”

Anything made from the Pollinator Kit is 56 percent biobased and made of Checkerspot’s algae polyol, a USDA-certified biobased product, however, it is not biodegradable. 

“It is still polyurethane plastic, at the end of the day, but the majority of it is not coming from fossil fuels, so that’s where the sustainability argument comes,” Goldman said. “Inside the fashion industry, high-end designers are selling plastic bags for a lot of money, and so that’s where this kind of material could fit in, at least in the sustainability market, in that world.”

Shea pointed out the technology for a biodegradable urethane alternative is a long way off from reaching commercial availability.

“Poylurethane is a really durable, long-lasting material and it’s used in things like bushings and wheels, and for a very good reason,” Shea said. “If you have a material that biodegrades in five years, it doesn’t function that way. So when you’re going in the direction of ‘I need this durable plastic, but I want something that’s not going to have as negative of an impact on the planet,’ at least taking out a significant portion of the fossil fuel extraction from that equation is a huge deal and is really beneficial in that sense because it can’t always be biodegradable, unfortunately.”

Shea and Goldman said the ‘behind-the-scenes’ nature of the material isn’t easily applied to a brand’s Earth-friendly marketing.

“Every machine and mass-manufacturing has polyurethane rollers and bushing, and right there is like a massive addressable market, except for that it’s a difficult story to tell to say, ‘we do this behind the scenes,’” Goldman said. “It’s not [often] something that is like worn on your body or something like that.”

Companies will have to decide for themselves if investing the time and money into sourcing a new material like Checkerspot’s innovation is worth it, Shea added. “I think for some companies, the answer is definitely yes. They’re trying to meet certain sustainability goals anyway, and then for some companies, it’s a ‘no’ because there’s a certain ‘given-and-take.’ When it’s behind-the-scenes you can’t make a splashy story about it, but I think that as time goes on, we’ll start seeing it more and more become the standard.”

The contract between Checkerspot and What For Design/Fun Stuff Design continues through the year.

“We just want to keep working for folks who are doing interesting things that are challenging, exciting and thoughtful,” Shea said. “Checkerspot is a company that’s really put a lot of care into this project and into these materials and we want to work for more companies like that.”

Checkerspot’s Charlotta Chan reciprocated that sentiment.

“Part of what we wanted to build was something for designers, but then also by designers, so it’s been really wonderful working with Dierdre and Julian and Mitch and Rory [Smith] to build what the Pollinator Kit is and there will be continued iterations of that in this partnership throughout the year,” she said.