Fast Company

A material that’s changed the way we ski ... and more to come

by Chris Farnsworth

renoun-skis0817Cyrus Schenck of Renoun Skis in Burlington took an idea he had while in a science class and turned it into a material that, when used in a ski, acts like a veritable shock absorber.

Cyrus Schenck was sitting on a friend’s porch, eating ice cream and contemplating the seemingly impossible. He’d had an idea — a whopper of an idea, even — one that had driven him to drop out of college and spend his summers washing windows to raise capital.

Yet it wasn’t enough. “I had $8,000 in my savings account,” Schenck recalls from that fateful day in 2014. “I needed at least $16,000. At least!”

He knew he was onto something — something he believed would change the ski industry. He had created a ski unlike any other. It wasn’t cheap, though, and the cold reality was that he didn’t have the money for a full manufacturing run.

“Paul sat down next to me and said, ‘Well, that’s easy,’” says Schenck, now 26. He was speaking of his friend Paul Budnitz, founder of Budnitz Bicycles in Burlington and the social network Ello, whose porch they were sitting on.

“I was, like, what do you mean, ‘That’s easy’? Paul said, ‘Hey, you can either just go for it, or keep washing windows.’”

So Schenck emptied his account to pay for the first half of manufacturing, and Renoun, a project he’d been working on since 2011, became reality.

Within three years, Renoun would go on to win the industry’s highest honor, an ISPO (International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics) gold for innovation in sports technology, be written about by The New York Times and Hemispheres magazine. Schenck would receive the patent for his game-changing technology, which he dubbed HDT — Hyper Damping Technology — in 2016, five years after he applied.

Growing up in Shelburne, Schenck spent his childhood inadvertently preparing for his future profession. “My dad would take us to Mad River Glen, Jay Peak, Sugarbush,” he says. “I have three sisters, so all four of us would just rip down the mountain, having fun.”

They would occasionally travel, but by and large the Schenck family skied Vermont, and Schenck became intimately aware of his home state’s unique mountains and terrain.

After graduating from Champlain Valley Union High School, he entered Clarkson University. The Potsdam, New York, school would eventually offer Schenck serious inspiration, if not the sort he had anticipated. He was pursuing a degree in aeronautical engineering, but something felt off to the young student.

“I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t know what I was doing at Clarkson,” he admits. “It was like, ‘Why am I here? What’s my purpose?’ I couldn’t find an answer. So the cute story would be, I dropped out and started Renoun. The reality is that it was a process that took years.”

In an attempt to shake off his ambivalence toward college, Schenck took an internship with General Electric in 2012. He was given a corporate credit card, moved to Lake Tahoe in California, and was routinely flown around the country to “fix their gadgets,” as he recalls.

“It was by far the coolest job I’d ever had, in the coolest place. Especially for a skier. But it didn’t feel like a career path to me.”

So he returned to Clarkson, only to find himself as unsure of his next move as he was before the G.E. internship.

That changed in the course of an hour, as a bored professor in a material sciences class went off lesson plan and started waxing philosophic to his students about non-Newtonian substances.

“He put a graph on the board and it didn’t make sense to me. He said, ‘Exactly, it’s non-Newtonian,’ and my mind just started racing.”

Non-Newtonian substances defy Sir Isaac Newton’s Law of Physics. Contrary to every action’s having an equal and opposite reaction, non-Newtonian substances might act as, for example, either liquid or solid, depending on the circumstances. In the case of a ski, the non-Newtonian polymer acts like a veritable shock absorber, so that the faster and harder you ski, the stiffer and more controlled the ski feels. More familiar non-Newtonian substances can include ketchup, cornstarch, shampoo, even our blood.

Schenck had a much different idea for the polymer, however. He and some friends began to experiment with the substance in their skis.

“We tested it, thinking we’d see something like maybe a 10 percent improvement,” he says, struggling, even now, to keep the excitement out of his voice. “The tests came back and it was 300 percent! More control, more stability to the ski.”

He uses the experience of famous Olympian Lindsey Vonn as an example. “Her skis have to be super, super stiff, right?” Schenck asks. “Because she’s just hauling down the mountain, top speed. If you’re a powder skier though, you go much slower, impacts are softer, you want a supple ski. Well, ours can be both.”

One of the first people to try the skis was Mike Nick, three-time X-Games medalist.

“After spending three days on his skis I remember saying one thing to him: ‘I’m skiing way too fast right now, faster than I should, but I feel totally in control,’” says Nick, now director of brand and strategy for Four Nine Design in Burlington. “It’s a pretty awesome feeling to know you can push the limits of your skiing and know that the equipment you’re on will most likely out-perform you as a skier.”

Budnitz agrees wholeheartedly.

“Cyrus is brilliant,” he asserts. “And the skis he’s engineering are changing skiing. I’m not a pro, but even I can feel the difference when bombing a hill at speed.”

Others were noticing his skis, too, but Schenck was quickly learning that didn’t translate directly to sales. His first year, he sold only four pairs of Renoun skis. He continued using summers to raise money from his window-washing business, but the money would always run out quickly, as trips to trade shows in Japan yielded plenty of hype, but no actual sales.

Down to his last $250 and driving around the West Coast trying to sell his product, Schenck was feeling disheartened.

“I spent pretty much all of my money,” he remembers. “I was feeling like, ‘What am I even doing? This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.’”

There was a trade show in Denver, and Schenck decided to give it one more go. Three hours later, he had an investor and an email letting him know that his skis had been awarded the ISPO gold in Munich, Germany. It was unprecedented for such an unknown brand to win the prestigious honor, something Schenck attributes to the nature of his product.

“Everyone in the ski industry knows innovation is almost always just marketing,” he explains. “Every single technological innovation in the last 10 years? Marketing. But people saw our skis and understood that wasn’t the case with us.”

That’s echoed by Jason Levinthal, founder of J Ski company, who, like Schenck, designs and sells direct-market custom skis.

“It’s sort of like the microbrew situation,” Levinthal says of the ski industry. “You’ve got Coors Light and then you’ve got the smaller, newer companies. And true innovation always comes from small, creator-owned brands like mine and Cyrus’s.”

Schenck certainly agrees, pointing out that anything he’s done right is due to Levinthal’s advice, which included suggesting a Quebec manufacturer.

“Jay worked at K2,” Schenck says, referencing one of the giants of the industry. “He saw the nickel-and-diming, he saw that their main goal was just getting production costs down, so he left to do his own thing.”

“The old industry model is screwed, honestly,” he insists. “The big brands are only surviving because corporations like Rubbermaid own them and prop them up. Between e-commerce and inflation, those old ways can’t keep up, and the industry needs to shift, which is tough for the big guys.”

For a company like Renoun, Schenck says, direct sales are the way to go. As word-of-mouth spread and he started moving more units, Schenck could see the benefits of cutting out the middleman.

“It gives us freedom,” he adds. “We realized we could do things like hundred-day return policies and no-questions-asked warranties. We could offer free lift tickets. We could ship our skis in these awesome-looking boxes so the customers really feel they’re getting custom gear.”
Every year sees Renoun grow; production tripled last year and growth continues, Schenck says. Though he speaks of the company in the plural as a nod to the cadre of friends and contractors working with him, Schenck is the only employee. He sees that changing in the future.

“Who knows?” he says. “It might start with us opening our own retail-specific shops with incredible, Apple-esque displays! But that’s years down the road.”

He’s already working on ventures that go far beyond skiing, but he’s cautious about giving details. The good news is that he sees Renoun staying right where it is in Vermont.

“It’s a tough place to raise money,” he admits. “You have to be creative and hustle because only the best ideas are going to survive. That’s part of what I want Renoun to do, to inspire people, to make them realize you can do this, and you can do this here.”

It’s all about hustle for Schenck, which leaves him little time to kick back and relax. “The issue with trying to make it in the ski industry is you don’t get time to ski,” he says with a rueful laugh.

That being said, this summer is the first in years he isn’t washing windows. He’s looking forward to sailing with friends at the Lake Champlain Yacht Club and taking a trip to Japan to finally do some skiing on the gear he created.

For the most part, though, it’s right back to work.

“You have to hustle and be a little crazy to make it here,” he says, looking out toward the lake. “But if you do, you can create incredible things. And we’re just getting started.” •