About 10 years ago, lifelong Santa Barbara surfer Edison Conner was studying materials science and engineering at the University of Pennsylvania when he came across a type of lightweight, super-strong foam. It had historically been used in aerospace technology, but Conner saw something that so many rocket scientists had overlooked: the potential to create a space-age surfboard.
Conner dedicated himself to studying the applications of the foam, as well as other aerospace materials, in surfboard design. Upon graduation he was awarded a grant from UPenn, and after enlisting lifelong friend and finance expert Parker Borneman, Varial Surf Technology was born.
“When we got started, the first design that we worked on had an aluminum honeycomb core with high-modulus foam in the rails,” says Conner. “It was 70 times stronger and much lighter than a regular polyurethane core, and it had more-responsive flex characteristics. It was as high performance as it gets.”
During the R&D phase, every surfer who tested out an aluminum-core board gave very positive feedback, and Conner and Borneman believed the new materials were a quantum leap for surfboards. But the cost of producing and distributing a wide range of shapes proved too great for the fledgling company; only a small number of aluminum-core boards were ever made, and even fewer sold. To keep Varial afloat, Borneman took a job at an investment bank and Conner was hired to design rocket parts for the aerospace company SpaceX.
“Our goal has always been to revolutionize the surfboard market through new materials,” says Borneman. “But it was clear that aluminum honeycomb wasn’t the best starting point, so we looked into other options.”
They shifted their focus away from the honeycomb and toward the high-modulus foam that they had been using in the rails. By making their cores entirely out of the foam, they could produce blanks that were still seven times more rigid, 20 percent lighter, and twice as strong as a standard PU board. And with the added strength, stringers were unnecessary, allowing blanks to have more consistent flex characteristics.
“What’s cool about the high-modulus foam compared to the aluminum honeycomb is that it’s something that shapers can process like any other blank,” says Conner. “But the boards that they make out of it have performance and durability that far exceeds polyurethane and polystyrene.”
Conner left SpaceX in 2013, and both he and Borneman have been fully committed to Varial ever since. They’ve spent the last year working closely with Surf Prescriptions’ Jeff “Doc” Lausch and his team riders in order to fine tune their foam formula, and they are now making high-modulus blanks for …Lost Surfboards, Rusty, and SUPERbrand, among others. Although Conner and Borneman believe that Varial foam is definitely a step in the right direction, they think the most high-performance craft are still to come.
“We haven’t given up on the aluminum honeycomb,” says Borneman. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but I think these materials will change the way people look at surfboards.”