By Veronica Perry, reporter
⏰ 8-minute read
As just a freshman in college, Ryan Olliges made his own skateboard press to upcycle carbon fiber, a material that aerospace companies often send to landfills.
Olliges then launched a skateboard company, which ballooned into a business that sells carbon fiber parts for all sorts of items, from drones to drums.
Looking back, a handful of landmark decisions resulted in the unique product and speedy production times that Olliges’s company, Elevated Materials, is now known for.
During his freshman year of college, Ryan Olliges worked in the University of Southern California’s Rocket Propulsion Lab. He was tasked with looking for donations of carbon fiber rolls, material the aerospace industry uses to make spacecraft wings, fuselages and more.
This carbon fiber fabric is about .009 inches thick and infused with resin that is partially cured, or hardened. The fabric can be laid into molds and formed into a variety of spacecraft parts, then cured to a fully solid state using heat and pressure.
Toward the end of the school year, with little luck in securing donations thus far, Olliges finally received a call from a company that was cleaning out its freezers full of carbon fiber. The company had a large amount of material that was still in near perfect condition and would dispose of it in the landfill if Olliges didn’t take it immediately.
According to Olliges, carbon fiber can be difficult to fully utilize. Large amounts of excess material are often discarded, especially in the aerospace industry. Such was the case at his lab.
“I thought this was a ridiculous waste and got to thinking about how I could start a company to solve this problem,” he said.
As a college freshman, Ryan Olliges began collecting scrap carbon fiber from aerospace companies.
From rocket ships to skateboards
Olliges spent the entire summer working on upcycling, or creatively repurposing, the donated carbon fiber, both in the research lab and on his own. He began building a skateboard press to try and make use of it.
After about six months of tinkering with self-constructed heating elements and press controllers, he eventually found a way to get the hot press to heat up to 121 degrees Celsius, the temperature required to cure the resins embedded in the carbon fiber. The fiber started off very soft and moldable, and when heat was applied, it cured into a solid skateboard part.
Olliges used his creation to launch a skateboard company called 121C Boards, a tribute to the unique temperature.
Since then, this sustainable business has grown into a bigger venture focused on manufacturing a variety of products using upcycled carbon fiber.
Olliges used scrap carbon fiber to make skateboard decks, launching a brand called 121C Boards.
Ready for takeoff
Olliges met his co-founder Dr. Greg Autry, professor of clinical entrepreneurship and director of the Southern California Spaceflight Initiative, through a fellow student in a feasibility analysis course.
After he created the first prototype of his skateboard, the University’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies helped him get the company ready to launch. In 2015, 121C Boards launched its first skateboard, named the Aileron after a part on an aircraft used to create a rolling motion, on Kickstarter. The business took off.
Autry is well-connected with the space industry, so he joined the venture with abundant contacts. In addition to investing in 121C Boards, Autry acts as a strategic advisor and a supplier relationship manager for the company.
Because of his network, the pair were able to arrange meetings with top executives at Southern California-based new space companies and negotiate deals to repurpose the production waste they were generating. The duo took that material back to their shop, sorted through it for viable pieces and used those to make rectangular skateboard blanks, which were then cut into the familiar shape of a skateboard deck.
Beyond the deck
But skateboards weren’t the final stop, nor the core of the company’s mission.
“The skateboard was a great minimum viable product for our carbon upcycling business. The Aileron proved that we could make a fun, futuristic and durable product from upcycled material,” Olliges said. “We began getting inquiries from people wanting other parts made from carbon fiber, hoping for a lower price point than what other manufactures could offer.”
At consumers’ behest, Olliges expanded into contract manufacturing and launched a new brand in 2018 called Elevated Materials, which is his primary focus today. The company collects scrap carbon fiber and converts it into all sorts of stock components, like cured panels and other shapes. Companies can purchase these components and fabricate them into unique parts. Elevated Materials also manufactures products such as drone frames, robotic components and snare drums for individuals and companies.
Olliges' second business manufactures all sorts of parts made from upcycled carbon fiber.
According to Olliges, the Elevated Materials business model is unique, and not only because “there aren't a ton of people supplying stock carbon parts” in the first place.
“Our competitive advantage comes from the relationships we have built with our supply chain for scrap material, who are developing carbon fiber spacecrafts, and the unique processing techniques we’ve developed for converting that scrap material into usable stock,” he added.
Olliges explained that, using his knowledge of how the material behaves, he uses random scrap sizes to create standardized shapes and then puts those shapes together like a puzzle to make parts.
Sources of revenue
Elevated Materials’s revenue comes from three major sources:
Elevated Materials sells carbon fiber stock on its website. Products, for example, include sheets of carbon fiber and medium diameter tubing. In the space industry, the tubing could be used as the housing for a small satellite telescope. It’s also used to make snare drum shells.
Olliges plans to expand into more diverse stock shapes such as angles, rods and other structural profiles for his diverse clientele.
“Customers who buy this stock are both makers building parts in their garage and large companies who have a product line and the capability to create their parts out of the stock,” he said.
Elevated Materials sells sheets of formerly-scrap carbon fiber that would've otherwise gone to landfills.
Elevated Materials cuts its raw carbon fiber material, or stock, for companies and individuals. According to Olliges, these customers typically send designs for a part they want created -- usually something flat, like a skateboard deck -- and the company cuts that part from its raw material, whether it’s just one for a prototype or thousands for an item in production.
121C Boards is now effectively an arm of Elevated Materials. Through its website, the brand sells skateboard decks directly to consumers. Elevated Materials creates custom-branded versions of those skateboards for companies in the aerospace industry, and it mass produces completely custom skateboards for skate companies.
“A lot of these [aerospace] companies have large facilities with multiple buildings, and their employees want a cool way to move around. They also like the look and design of the product,” Olliges explained.
Looking back, a number of choices in Elevated Materials’s growth led to its current success. These include:
Olliges originally planned to outsource the processing, pressing, cutting and assembly of the Aileron skateboard. However, halfway through the Kickstarter campaign for 121C Boards, his manufacturing partner backed out. To overcome this challenge, Olliges and Autry began building their own manufacturing facility with funds from the campaign and investments from friends and family.
“This allowed us to learn the process for ourselves and move through development more rapidly than we had initially planned,” Olliges said.
The Elevated Materials team also builds most of its production equipment in-house.
This makes the brand “able to tailor our equipment to include features unique to our process,” Olliges said. “When we get large orders [for which] we don't have the production capacity, we are able to bring in new equipment relatively inexpensively compared to other companies in the industry because we've developed equipment we can build in-house using our materials and existing equipment.”
For example, the team can easily change processing parameters like the number of press openings, the way the equipment is loaded and unloaded and the pressure and cure cycles for the material.
Elevated Materials processes scrap carbon fiber with self-built machines.
In 2019, the team reached out to companies they thought may be competitors, including carbon fiber manufacturers, for sales advice.
“We ended up reaching out because we were having a difficult time establishing ourselves as a carbon fiber original equipment manufacturer (OEM), and we needed to see some longer term deals start to form,” Olliges said. “We had been worried that they would recognize what we were doing with the scrap and go after our suppliers, but that wasn't the case at all.”
Olliges said that these potential competitors actually turned out to be great partners with helpful advice.
A timely purpose
Olliges points to an increasing focus on the environment across all industries. Businesses are working to be more sustainable and socially responsible, which bodes well for Elevated Materials. He finds that it’s generally easy to work with companies to solve their carbon fiber scrap problem. In fact, quite a few companies have reached out to him, asking if he can take their material. He explained that some are turned away because of high demand.
“In the beginning, getting the contracts in place took knowledge of the industry and connections with the executives at the companies,” he said. “Autry played a large role in setting up the deals because the companies that we work with trust him. Now that we're established in the industry, people reach out to us.”
Elevated Materials collects over 100,000 pounds of carbon fiber each year from its clients. In total, the venture has diverted over 300,000 pounds of carbon fiber from landfills since its launch. The team has increased from two to 10 people and closed over $1 million in sales.
Lately, Elevated Materials has focused on creating articles and videos for its blog that teach people how to work with carbon fiber. This content allows the brand to serve as a knowledge base for carbon fiber manufacturing.
“By educating people, we expect to see more people using carbon fiber in their designs and see carbon fiber making its way into more and more industries,” Olliges said.
This blog post explains how to cut carbon fiber with a waterjet. A corresponding video shows the process.
Besides working to make small improvements on a daily basis, Olliges advises budding businesses to focus on building a quality team. He also recommends establishing documented procedures and emphasizes that it’s important to lock in a process that lets a company track changes over time.
Olliges hopes that in five to 10 years, Elevated Materials will be the go-to source for upcycling uncured carbon fiber scrap and sourcing stock carbon fiber material.
“There will eventually be multiple locations across the country centered at composite manufacturing hubs and, in the future, we will be diverting over 10 million pounds from the landfill every year,” he said.
We’re confident his team will elevate to the occasion.