Good(bye) Vibrations


When Cyrus Schenck built his first two pairs of skis, he knew they were junk. He was studying engineering at Clarkson University in Upstate New York, and building skis was a side project, but wasn’t going very well. The 2012 fall semester was drawing to a close, and Schenck was thinking about his future—including dropping out at the end of the year. Then, one of his aeronautical engineering professors, Ajit Achuthan, threw Schenck a curveball: non-Newtonian polymers.

At the time Schenck and his fellow students were studying the building blocks of the world, stuff like concrete, cement, steel, glass, stone. Non-Newtonian polymers are in a world all their own. They don’t behave the way those materials do. What they resemeble most is Silly Putty. When you press Silly Putty with your finger, it smoothly and calmly allows your digit to penetrate. Hit it with a hammer and it seizes up, like stone. Hit it hard enough and it should, theoretically, shatter.

Schenck, who was still trying to feed his desire to build skis and create a ski company, wondered what the stuff would do if it was built into a ski. So, he started casting about, trying to get his hands on some polymers. None of the companies that make the kinds of polymers he wanted would sell to him—after all, he was a kid who’d dropped out of engineering school. But tenacity won the day.

“When we got ahold of some we were off to the races,” he said. He labelled his big idea—a combination of the ski design, along with the use of the polymer—“Hyper Damping Technology” or HDT.

By the spring of 2014, Schenck and his crew had created three sample sections of ski. They were only about two feet long, but they included the core, edges, top sheet—everything you’d find in a normal ski. One sample had no polymer, one had a few strips of HDT, and one had the strips plus a sprayed-on layer of HDT. Schenck sent them to a friend, Tyler Arsenault, who has a PhD in vibration-related studies (“his job is to keep helicopters in the air, basically”) and quickly recieved an email response: “What is this stuff, guys? This is insane.”

Tests showed that the HDT could produce a reduction in vibration of more than 300 percent. However, additional experiments found that too much HDT in a ski (34 percent by volume in this case) “sucked,” in Schenck’s words. The optimum, they learned, was 13–15 percent.

So how does HDT perform on the mountain? The faster and harder the snow, the stiffer the ski becomes. Mellow conditions create a softer ski. Schenck insists Renoun is just doing what all ski companies do. Skis are built of wood, metal, fiberglass, carbon… whatever. “At the end of the day, we’re just introducing a new element to the ski world,” he said. “We’re just adding a new fun ingredient to the mix.”

However, HDT is something of a game-changer. In 2015, Renoun won a highly coveted gold ISPO award based on Arsenault’s vibration tests. Schenck recalls standing on the stage, above reps from Rossignol and Elan, and accepting the award. It was surreal. Renoun didn’t even have a website. Renoun won another gold ISPO award in 2019.

Why haven’t other ski makers followed Renoun? One word: patents. Renoun holds a handful of patents associated with the use of non-Newtonian polymers and is in the process of applying for more. Some ski brands have approached Schenck about using Renoun’s approach, and so have makers of products outside of the ski industry.

Case in point, HDT is now being put to use in one of the gyms at Penn State. After all, chronic vibrations in the hard flooring at basketball venues can contribute to injury. Schenck has been in talks with NBA officials, so who knows where this might go. And then there is the possibility of using HDT in surfboards, and possibly bullet-proof clothing. The list goes on.

For now, Schenk is just happy that his idea has worked. But just look at Renoun’s launch angle—to date, the company’s slowest annual growth rate has been 50 percent (2019 is coming in at 75–80 percent).

“We’re not trying to change the world,” Schenck says. “We’re just trying to quiet it down a little bit.”

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