Disruptive thinking with Cruz Foam co-founder John Felts.Disruptive thinking with Cruz Foam co-founder John Felts.
By Joel Hersch
California’s technology sector comprises a vast range of products, but at first thought, many will think of things such as “apps,” “programming,” or “virtual reality.” So, as Surf City Santa Cruz unfurls its fledgling identity as a wonderful home for tech startups, what traits help to qualify an industry or new product as fitting within the “tech sector?”
During a recent lunch at Humble Sea Brewing Co. with co-founder Cruz Foam John Felts, he says that one key ideology ingrained in the tech industry is the capacity for disruption. Not the bad kind, like spilling hot cup of coffee on your boss during a presentation, but the sort that helps to overturn the status quo when improved intelligence points to new and more sound ways of doing things.
The Santa Cruz-born startup Cruz Foam is developing a new material derived from Chitin—a bi-product of shrimp shell husks—using a chemical process that transforms the pulverized bio-matter into a super-sustainable replacement to the non-biodegradable foam used in surfboard blanks. And that is exactly what Cruz Foam intends to manufacture—surfboards with the same performance quality, reparability, lifetime and cost as their petroleum-based polyurethane core counterparts.
“Technology is absolutely a very broad term,” says Felts, who recently took a leave of absence from his Ph.D program at UC Santa Cruz to pursue Cruz Foam full-time. “I would say this fits in the realm of ‘tech’ because we’re not just working with existing materials—it’s an entirely innovative, brand new product. What’s so different is the chemistry and the materials engineering that’s involved.”
The Chitin, of which there is an approximate 2 million ton source of available annually, is not only plentiful but also entirely friendly toward the environment, says Felts, who is a surfer himself.
The proprietary process involves water, salts, and a foaming agent, all of which is being fine-tuned at their Westside laboratory. The Chitin is removed from the shells using an acid and a base, which remove the minerals and the proteins. What’s leftover is similar to a powder, which can be dissolved before having air blown into it, creating a foam material.
Felts’ vision—along with additional founders Xiaolin Zhang and Marco Rolandi, who is the chair of the electrical engineering department at UC Santa Cruz—is to move Cruz Foam’s manufacturing process and foam material into new markets, in addition to surfboards, and shake up the makers world.
“One of the most important things about disruptive technology is that it pushes boundaries, it tests the status quo, and opens up new doors,” Felts says. “It could be that as people see what we’re doing with our materials for surfboards, other industries might challenge existing norms, especially ones that have impacts on the environment.”
Last year, when Felts was still at the university, he won $3,000 through the UCSC Grad Slam, which is an annual competition to present thesis research in under three minutes. That research, naturally, was on the premise of Cruz Foam. Later in 2017, Cruz Foam took the top prize in the Student Division at the 2017 Startup Challenge Monterey Bay.
Since then, Cruz Foam joined the Santa Cruz Works six-month tech program, Santa Cruz Accelerates, which helps early-stage startups to achieve local viability, evaluate new market opportunities, source professional mentors, and much more. The Santa Cruz Accelerates program, Felts says, is a great example of the way Santa Cruz is supporting and evolving into a launch pad for tech entrepreneurs.
“Santa Cruz’s ecosystem is evolving at such a critical time, where there is this huge initiative to push entrepreneur endeavors, startups, connecting UCSC with local industry, and the support infrastructure to help it all grow together,” he says. “The Accelerator program helped us to create connections in the community that have been absolutely vital for us. Through the program, Cruz Foam has brought on a key advisor—Toby Corey—and benefitted from the mentorship of Keri Waters, the local CEO and co-founder at Buoy Labs.
When asked about the decision to leave his UCSC Ph.D program, Felts boils it down to opportunity verses risk analysis.
“I have a strong belief that in your lifetime, you’re going to get maybe two or three really big opportunities, and they’re probably going to come with a huge amount of risk,” he says. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Are you willing to take that opportunity?’ Maybe one of them will come along at a time in your life that it really doesn’t make sense. But another time an opportunity presents itself, something inside tells you that you just have to go for it. Sometimes, it’s absolutely worth it.”
Cruz Foam plans to have a surfboard prototype ready for use by this summer.
Come check out John Felts accept The 2018 NEXTies award for Innovator of the Year on March 23 at the Rio Theatre. Tickets available here.
Joel Hersch is a writer, journalist and video producer with the creative marketing company Swan Dive media. Learn more about the author at swandive.media.