By Eric Peterson | Jul 22, 2020
San Francisco, California
Natural fiber composites
Lingrove branched out of another San Francisco manufacturer, Blackbird Guitars, that Luttwak founded in 2006 to make a better travel guitar.
Blackbird originally made carbon-fiber guitars, but there was demand for a greener material with more traditional properties. "Back in 2008 or so, we started exploring alternatives to carbon in an effort to get closer to the old-growth wood used in musical instruments," says Luttwak. "That led to the launch of the Clara ukulele back in 2014."
The Clara was the first product made with Ekoa, the proprietary natural fiber composite that is now the centerpiece of Lingrove's catalog. Blackbird has since made the jump from carbon fiber to exclusively Ekoa instruments. "The market wanted more of a wood experience than what carbon was offering," says Luttwak.
Named for the Hawaiian koa tree that's beloved by crafters of guitars and other wooden instruments, Ekoa is made from flax fiber from Europe and North America and a bio-based resin by way of "a continuous additive process," says Luttwak. "We have manufacturing partners on the East Coast and West Coast who are scaling this up."
Luttwak, who worked for Ferrari before starting Blackbird, co-founded Lingrove with Director of Business Development Elaine Chow, with a background in consumer products and industrial design. "We spun out Lingrove as an LLC to capture that demand, and then went whole hog after getting accepted into the IndieBio accelerator [in 2018] to be able to bring that better-than-wood, better-than-many-high-performance-materials composite into much larger applications like building and construction," he says.
The last two years have been all about product development. "The idea was to scale up a material we could apply to a much larger vertical," says Luttwak. "We initially spun out both a veneer product, a surfacing product, and a panel made with that same surfacing product."
Ekoa veneer, which Luttwak describes as a "structural skin" for furniture and interior applications, debuted on the market in June 2020. "Stay tuned for later this year," he adds. "We hope to launch in both furniture and vertical and horizontal surfaces with partners." The veneer will be combined with honeycomb or medium-density fibreboard panels for the panel products that will follow later in 2020.
Utilizing commodity equipment with "some proprietary aspects," Luttwak says the manufacturing process has been honed since Ekoa's genesis at Blackbird, but it has one foot in innovative materials and another in time-tested roll-to-roll manufacturing. "We're basically taking Industrial Revolution-style processing technology, which is great because it scales. It can produce miles of materials per day."
He adds, "It's old manufacturing technology that still existed . . . but now it's automated, closed-loop. Where it took a whole team of people, now two people can run the machine, or even one. There's a lot of excitement around 3D printing. This is an additive process like 3D printing, but just going on one axis essentially."
Scalable production is critical to Lingrove's strategy to compete in such markets as "furniture, interiors in general, mobility, even high-performance sports applications where people are looking for carbon replacers," says Luttwak.
Initially, the plan is to position Ekoa to supply companies making furniture, acoustic panels, flooring, and other interior surfaces. "It has to be really pretty, so that's where the connection to old-growth wood is important in our roots in instrument craft, the highest form of woodcraft," says Luttwak. It also has to be "strong and durable, abrasion-resistant, chemical-resistant, all of the crazy stuff composites can provide."
The performance of Ekoa is matched by its sustainability, he adds. "Plenty of people have made eco-friendly stuff that's ugly and lower-performance," says Luttwak. "The killer differentiator [for Ekoa] is there's no nasty chemistry," says Luttwak. "This kind of clean chemistry, no-added -formaldehyde aspect is really rare in interiors."
As construction accounts for about one-fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions, he continues, "Our bigger thesis is we start with structural skin, but then we could actually make structures, and we can make them from rapidly renewable sources. Concrete, steel, and even wood have some measure of compromise, whereas rapidly renewables, grown on the right kind of land in a renewable way, could make a big dent in global CO2 emissions. . . . We're happy to have something that sequesters 1.4 pounds of CO2 for every pound of flax produced."
The supply chain could ultimately rely on a current waste stream. "We're using virgin fiber today, but we have the ability to use agricultural residue," says Luttwak. "The largest supply of flax today is actually grown in Canada. We get the fiber from the stalk that is left to waste in the field or burnt, even worse."
"If you show a market for something that wasn't there before, that really unlocks a lot of downstream possibilities," he notes. "It's mainly showing the demand for ag residue that justifies the cost of collecting that residue. It's the same as recycled plastics: If you can show you can pay more than $1.50 a pound or whatever, then it's worth reclaiming those water bottles."
Challenges: COVID-19 hit right before the introduction of Ekoa veneer. "We had a lot of excitement earlier on in the commercial space. Now we have to think, what's relevant for work-from-home? . . . Figuring out how you fit into this more decentralized market of residential interiors. Some players do both -- some furniture brands play in both, which is great."
He adds, "Given that this has a broad swath of possibilities, thinking about what our future product pipeline will look like [is a challenge]. Now furniture is more of a focus than walls, because of COVID."
Opportunities: A massive existing market that's ripe for innovation. "The shocker is that veneers and laminates are about a $70 billion market [worldwide]," says Luttwak. "When you add panels, you're looking at $120 billion."
Furniture is a big near-term opportunity for Ekoa veneers: "We've got three of the five largest furniture brands interested in buying materials."
He says flooring, acoustic panels, and automotive interiors are additional target markets for Ekoa, but notes, "You also need to be careful to not have a lack of focus."
Needs: Capital. "We have this panel product that has a market but needs investment, so there's obviously an opportunity to get involved on the investing side," says Luttwak.
Lingrove also needs partners with small-scale projects to explore the possibilities of Ekoa, he adds. "We're always interested in hearing about people's projects. Big companies are awesome, but they're slow-moving ships."