In 10 years, riding one of today’s surfboards will be a little bit like driving a Subaru Outback at a Maserati convention: functional, but comically slow and unsophisticated.
Thanks to the innovation of three Cal Poly aerospace engineering graduate students, the future of surfboards may be closer than ever before. Using complex computer modeling and wind tunnel testing, Shaun Wixted, Brandon Baldovin and Tynan Guerra are working to craft the perfect surfboard fin — one that allows surfers to ride faster, turn on a dime and track their every movement.
The idea began with 29-year-old Wixted from North Carolina. Prior to graduate school, Wixted was recruited to play Division I baseball at West Point Military Academy. After his time there, he spent five years as an active duty U.S. Army officer and was deployed to Kuwait for 10 months.
It was not until he left the army and enrolled in Cal Poly for graduate school that he fell in love with surfing and realized he could use his engineering degree to improve the sport.
“Shaun noticed that we have a window to try and sneak in and innovate here,” Baldovin said. “It’s crazy that the surf industry hasn’t changed in the past 40 or 50 years. There’s kind of the attitude of ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’”
But in an engineer’s mind, a fin that is not optimal for water travel is as good as broken.
Wixted’s plan to create a startup company began to take shape October 2017 in the Cal Poly Wind Tunnel. He was discussing his passion for surfing with aerospace engineering professor Graham Doig when inspiration hit. Using the low-speed wind tunnel, they could craft a perfectly proportioned surfboard fin, designed specifically for speed and turning.
That day in the lab, Wixted pitched the idea to Baldovin. Before they left the lab, they had a name for their new company. Lost Coast Surf Tech was born.
Under the guidance of Doig, the pair quickly entered Cal Poly’s on-campus startup incubator within the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), the Hatchery, and recruited aerospace engineering student Guerra to be their chief engineer.
Guerra, like Baldovin, formerly interned at NASA and could not wait to get his hands dirty with a new, intriguing project.
“I think it’s super exciting to bring a fresh outlook into an industry that hasn’t changed in many years,” Guerra said.
In addition to building specially-shaped fins, Lost Coast plans to outfit the fins with GPS and IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) devices. The fins will measure the movement of surfboards through water and transmit data to a user-friendly app on surfers’ phones.
For the first time, surfers will be able to visualize their rides with charts and graphs and improve their skills by identifying where and how they could have maneuvered differently.
“It’s a seamless integration for the surfer,” Wixted said. “It’s like a Fitbit for a surfboard.”
Lost Coast is still in the ideating and testing phase of their product, but they plan to have a physical prototype completed before Cal Poly’s entrepreneurship competition, Innovation Quest, at the end of April. Wixted could not be more thrilled to be a part of the entrepreneurship community.
“I’m totally about the whole startup thing, eating ramen noodles and sleeping in the garage and just doing what you love,” Wixted said. “There’s moments in your life where you get some perspective and there’s a window to be able to do things and this is one of those times.”
“Shaun’s trying really hard to not get a grown-up job,” Baldovin said.
The three graduate students aspire to win funding at Innovation Quest and go on to enter the CIE HotHouse Accelerator program in downtown San Luis Obispo over the summer.
“I am very confident that they’re on to a winning idea. They’re all very highly skilled, effective engineers,” Doig said.
In 2016, surfing was voted into the Olympic Games. The sport will premiere at the 2020 games in Tokyo. The trio of entrepreneurs can only imagine what it would be like if their surfboard fins made it to the Olympics and perhaps, were disqualified.
“How cool would it be to get banned from the Olympics?” Wixted said.