May 27, 2024

Prototype: Innovation, Gliding Across the Generations

Nick and Billy Smith, California-born brothers, grew up admiring the derring-do of their father’s father, a mechanical engineer and sometime race-car driver named H. W. Smith Jr. — or Bill to his friends.

“He was all about having a good time — still is,” says Nick, 22. That’s why, in 2006 on a visit to their grandfather’s ski cabin in Vail, Colo., the brothers were drawn to its dusty attic. They were certain they would find something fun to do there. “We were looking for schnapps or fireworks, one of the two,” Nick says.

“I think it was both,” says Billy, 26.

Instead, poking around, the Smith brothers found a crate filled with 24 cardboard boxes, each about the size of a travel umbrella. A drawing on every box showed a man on skis, a parachutelike sail attached to his wrists and legs. Ski-Klipper, the label said.

The boys hurried downstairs, demanding to know what they had found. Capes? Kites?

“Our grandfather just said: ‘Put them on. They’re a lot of fun,’ “ Billy says.

Flash forward to April 6, 2010, when the brothers received a patent for something they call the Sporting-Sail. It has almost the same design their grandfather created in the late 1960s — and quickly abandoned, he says, because he was too busy — but is made from modern materials. And the product — which lets users harness the wind to decelerate on steep inclines — is not just for skiers any more.

“There are more kids skateboarding today than playing Little League baseball,” Nick says, explaining the modern need that inspired their company, called Sukräfte — a melding of the words “surf” and “skate.” As he put it, there are 18.5 million skateboarders worldwide, “and not a single efficient braking system on the market — ka-ching!”

Billy Smith works as a wet-suit designer at Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, when he is not tending to their start-up business. He recalls a childhood in which the two brothers puttered in the family garage in Mill Valley, Calif.

“The garage was the base,” he says, recalling how he created bags from recycled materials as a teenager while his brother shaped surfboards and skateboards. “Sewing machines to screwdrivers. We had it all: Fiberglas, Kevlar, carbon fiber, rubber scraps.”

Nick says, “The garage was the think tank.” He graduated on Friday with a bachelor’s degree from the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

The brothers’ mother, Brigitte Smith, is an architect, and their father, Bill Smith III, is a landscape architect. The sons credit their parents along with their grandfather with encouraging their creativity by setting an example.

“Reinvent the descent” is the marketing slogan the brothers coined for their product, which costs $79 and comes with a lifetime guarantee. But the principle that guides the company is best articulated in this description on their Web site, “A Downhill and Downwind Friend and Family Tradition.”

From his home in upstate New York, H. W. Smith Jr., now 83, says he based his Ski-Klipper on a contraption he saw while skiing in Europe in the ‘60s. “I love deep and steep, but sometimes it’s a little steeper than I’d rather,” he says. “But with the sail I could do some pretty darn steep places.”

Mr. Smith, who signs his e-mail “Bill, the OLD OLD man,” has nevertheless already enjoyed 39 days of skiing this year. He says that growing up in Cooperstown, N.Y., he was always inventing things. “I had a science club I belonged to,” he says. “You couldn’t do this today, but we made bombs and huge hot-air balloons that you could let go.”

Later, that tinkering spirit led him to be a co-founder of what is now McLaren Performance Technologies, a Detroit-area company that, among other things, builds engines and drive trains for automakers. He says his Ski-Klipper side venture, developed on a lark, stalled when one Vail ski resort prohibited the use of hang gliders and his product.


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