ECU startup flips over hemp for skateboard manufacturing
A student-led East Carolina University startup company has plans to make hemp a household item, not for its use in health products or wholesome snacks, but for its potential to help thrill seekers grab big air on a halfpipe.
ECOre Composites, a startup led by mechanical engineering major Cainen Miller and industrial engineering technology major Joe Gisler, utilizes eco-friendly composites to design and manufacture products.
The duo’s first attempt at giving an old product a new, environmentally-inspired design came in ECOre’s take on the skateboard — specifically the sturdy deck that makes up the board’s body.
Traditionally, decks are built out of wood, mostly sourced from trees in the Great Lakes region. Besides the stress put on the environment as part of the construction process, wooden skateboards face structural challenges, like drying out, which causes the board to chip. Boards can also become waterlogged, making them heavier and harder to control.
Through its manufacturing process, ECOre’s skateboard deck is priced at $70, within the range of $55-$200 for a conventional wooden board.
“The market for hemp and other eco-friendly skateboards is steadily growing as people begin to realize the benefits in performance, as well as the environmental benefits,” Gisler said. “Maple wood is the most popular product used in skateboard manufacturing, but rising costs are reducing profit margins, making both consumers and manufacturers look elsewhere for alternative boards.”
Miller said that ECOre’s manufacturing process is unique because it uses industrial hemp fiber instead of wood. Multiple layers of fiber are laid on top of one another and are coated with an eco-friendly epoxy. When the product is cured, it produces a solid board that can be shaped into a skateboard deck.
“The consumer receives the benefit of having a high-performance, waterproof product that they know didn’t contribute to deforestation,” Miller said.
The pair spent the spring semester developing a prototype of the board after researching its market potential last fall. Miller added that as an engineering major, learning about the business side of producing a product was a new challenge.
“I never realized how much research goes into a startup business besides the work involved in producing the product,” he said. “Before starting on this project, I had zero business knowledge. This has helped me acquire a background in business that I otherwise would not have access to.”
That’s where Gisler came in. The pair were introduced as part of RISE29 — ECU’s award-winning student entrepreneurship program — because they both had an interest in producing green products. Gisler was tasked with exploring opportunities for hemp use in eastern North Carolina by RISE29 leadership. He saw the versatility of hemp fiber manufacturing, including its use in more than 25,000 products like clothing and apparel, construction materials and textiles.
“Hemp loves the same soil as tobacco, and farmers have found success in using hemp in their rotation as a natural pesticide,” Gisler said. “Being that North Carolina is the nation’s top producer of tobacco, we have the infrastructure and the farmers to successfully dominate the hemp market.”
Gisler and Miller hope to return to the lab soon to fine-tune their prototype. The pair were unable to follow the specific manufacturing guidelines they established due to COVID-19 shelter-in-place restrictions. With more lab testing, they’ll be able to conduct research into the board’s thickness, stress points and material properties.
Miller said the transition from taking a theoretical product and actually producing a working prototype has been an eye-opening experience.
“There is a large difference between designing something on a computer in the classroom and actually creating a visually appealing and durable product,” he said. “RISE29 has given me the opportunity to exercise my design and manufacturing knowledge, which is not something I can just do in the classroom.”
Gisler echoed his partner’s sentiments, mentioning the 32 interviews with skate shop owners, skateboard users and hemp farmers the team conducted through ECU’s I-Corps program that informed their manufacturing direction.
“I have learned so much from these individuals,” Gisler said. “I’ve learned how to build a business plan from the ground up and how to build and test a prototype. I wouldn’t have been capable of all this without the program.”
Gisler and Miller are interested in expanding ECOre’s product line with other sports boards, including longboards, snowboards, wakeboards and surfboards in the future.