Nate Alder has never taken a chemistry class, and was in his early 20s when he was scuba diving on a trip to Brazil and got the idea that became his company. The company he founded uses argon gas to make products that adjust to extreme cold and temperature changes without adding bulk. Deflated the vest provides some warmth, and when inflated the vests are three times warmer than a 900-fill down jacket that works even when it gets wet. Instead of being three inches thick, the fabric is thin, even when fully inflated. With this idea Alder built Klymit.
Winning Idea: Use Argon Gas as Insulation for Lightweight Vests
When training to get his scuba diving certification, Alder learned that argon gas is put inside dry suits to insulate divers in cold arctic water. Argon is used in many applications because it’s safe, non-toxic, and non-flammable. It makes a very effective insulator and is readily available (it’s in the atmosphere). So he decided he wanted to use argon to insulate a vest or jacket. That idea earned him fifth place at a Brigham Young University business plan competition. The next year he built a prototype of his idea and won. Then his team went to an international competition that pitted his idea against those at the best schools in the world. He won again.
Building a $75,000 Prototype without a Budget
When he first asked experts how he could trap gas in clothing the response wasn’t encouraging. Professors said it was impossible and even if he figured out a way to do it, no one would buy it. Engineers said a prototype would cost $75,000. Not having the money, Alder passed and set his mind on figuring out how to make it himself.
Borrowing Ideas from the Wine, Medical and Shoe Industries
Like the first time he came up with an idea, Alder found inspiration for his outdoor product by looking to other industries. He strung ideas together to create a vest. He needed a way to get gas into the jacket, out of the jacket, and let people regulate the process so it happened gradually and safely. He took inspiration from the wine industry, using a one-way valve similar to the ones that keep wine fresh after it’s opened. A dial on an old model of Reebok Pump basketball shoes helped control the pressure. He found them on eBay, and cut the dial out of each shoe by hand. The end result cost just $100. He made canisters to hold the gas and valves from the medical industry to connect the system.
Going to Market
The original idea was to license the technology to major manufacturers to use in their products. The companies were reluctant to spend the money, especially after the recession hit. So Klymit built its own products. At the first trade show, all company had was a sample. It was a hit. Klymit's PR firm helped get mentions in the media and six months later they started taking orders. The manufacturers saw the buzz the product created and wanted to license it.
Encouraging Innovative Ideas at Work
“We all come from different backgrounds, we see things from different angles,” Alder says of his employees. He states that he doesn’t want to create products that are evolutionary; he wants to create products that are revolutionary. The staff talks about new ideas every day and records them on a whiteboard. In meetings, they discuss and debate the ideas, based on cost to market, time to market, and uniqueness. Then they take a vote. Everyone has 10 votes. Sticky notes placed next to an idea constitutes a vote.
A New Product Every 6 Months
The team is constantly talking about what’s next. Their newest product is a sleeping pad for camping. It rolls up to the size of a soda can and weighs just 9.1 ounces. It doesn’t look like regular camping pads, that can get as big as a sleeping bag, but it’s just as comfortable and warmer, the company says, because it uses Klymit’s technology.
Why the outdoor industry? “The outdoor industry is one of the most innovative industries. They are also quick to adopt new technology,” says Alder. Klymit continues to expand, aiming to be in 25 countries by next year and creating a new product every six months. Not bad for what started out as a vacation.
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Janet Meiners Thaeler is an Evangelist for OrangeSoda Inc. and the principal blogger for their corporate blog and Twitter account. She regularly advises clients on blogging and social media strategies. Her own blog is Newspapergrl.com (and Twitter account @newspapergrl). She is passionate about online marketing and is always looking for new insights, resources and trends to help her clients.