A Kiwi surfboard shaper's serendipitous experiment with wool has led to a global partnership with one of the biggest names in surfing and an entirely new type of surfboard.
Tinkering away in his workshop one afternoon, Tauranga-based Paul Barron accidentally spilt some resin onto his sweater. It was a moment that sparked his curiosity, and it wasn't long before he bought some raw wool to see if he could perhaps develop something that could be incorporated into surfboard production.
"I tried to gloss a board with it, but it just didn't work, so I chucked it in the corner of the factory," Baron tells the Herald.
However, the idea didn't die there. Barron kept at it, trying different approaches, before eventually developing a wool-based substance that could be used to replace fibreglass on a surfboard.
"It was definitely a long process to get it to a manufacturing stage and then make it a commercially viable product. It's taken a few years."
That tenacity paid off, with Barron catching the attention of Firewire Surfboards, a company majority-owned by 11-time surfing world champion Kelly Slater.
Firewire has a long history of incorporating sustainable alternatives into its board construction, as part of its objective to become a zero-waste company by 2050.
Firewire chief executive Mark Price says he first met Barron during the development phase around three years ago.
"We had a reputation for being into that kind of stuff [sustainability] in a big way," says Price.
"So when Paul was looking for potential partners, our DNA was aligned with what he was looking for."
Another advantage was that FIrewire had its own factory, which meant that all the experiments could be conducted in a single place without reliance on outside partners.
These experiments have now spawned the first quiver of the Firewire's Woolight surfboard range, featuring Barron's alternative to fibreglass made out of wool sourced from Pāmu Farms.
The boards are being rolled out in the global market under the feet of Kelly Slater's longtime friend and former pro surfer Rob Machado and up-and-coming pro Pacha Light.
Price says early feedback indicates that the technology doesn't interfere with the performance of the board at all.
"With Woolight, we are matching or even reducing the weight of our existing surfboards, so you've got this strong sustainability story with a performance story that's at least as good if not even better," says the Firewire boss.
As is often the case with sustainable products, surfers will have to fork out a little more in order to get their hands on Woolight board – but Price believes consumers will be willing to do this, not only due to the sustainability backstory but also because of aesthetics.
Given that 80 to 90 per cent of boards sold in stores are white, Price believes that the unique texture of the boards, derived from dying the wool during the production process, will catch the attention of those looking for something a little different.
It's always difficult to tell whether a new product, particularly with a sustainability angle, will extend beyond a one-hit wonder, but NZ Merino's market development manager Hadleigh Smith sees potential in the IP to extend well beyond surfboard manufacturing and create a range of new opportunities for the wool industry beyond surfing.
"The wool used in these surfboards usually goes into carpets and rugs, but now we've found a whole new category to go into and we think this is just the tip of the iceberg," says Smith.
Fibreglass is also used in the automotive, boating and construction industries – giving Barron and NZ Merino a few other potential future business partners to approach.
"The global fibreglass market sees about 29 million square metres of fibreglass used every year, and it's expected to grow by another 30 per cent in the next five years. If we can get even 1 per cent of that global market for sustainable businesses, that's going to make a huge impact for the New Zealand wool industry."
At a time when the wool industry has been struggling with historically low prices, the future of the industry is being paved by innovative Kiwi thinkers at businesses like All Birds and Icebreaker.
And if things go well, Barron could very well be the next person to weave into the tapestry that defines the modern wool industry.