by Sadie Williams
It’s hard to feel upbeat about one’s own lackluster life choices when sitting down for coffee with Cyrus Schenck. The 24-year-old Shelburne native and founder of Renoun Ski Company exudes a sense of positivity and intelligence that, while tempered by a roller coaster ride of recent experience, makes it hard to believe he will ever permanently fail in life. The impression he makes at first meet is backed by his recent success in producing a ski unlike any other on the market, one that responds to changing conditions through the use of (drumroll please) Oobleck.
At least, a material like Oobleck, the cornstarch and water mixture that, in the eyes of elementary aged kids so often found playing with it, magically transforms between liquid and solid in response to pressures exerted by tiny hands. Perhaps the only difference between Oobleck and the material Schenck utilizes is that one is made in Tupperware with a whisk and the other manufactured by a British company called D30 and is also used as reactive body armor. So exciting is this innovation that Renoun won a prestigious gold prize at the ISPO trade show in Munich, Germany this past January for innovative use of technology in skis.
Schenck became fixated on non-Newtonian materials, or those whose properties change with the amount of force applied, during a Monday morning materials science class at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., where he was majoring in aeronautical engineering.
“We were investigating steel and concrete and basic building blocks of any structure,” Schenck recounted, “ and this guy threw up [an example] and he was like ‘check this stuff out guys, this is going to blow you out of the water, it’s a non-Newtonian material, and so far no one uses it in structures, because it doesn’t really make sense, but this is what it can do,’ and I remember looking at it and thinking, dang, that’s really cool. Like, man, someone should put that in a ski. So I went and researched it.”
What sounds like a simple transition between inspiration and success has been no walk in the park. While Schenck began working with five college friends on designing skis, he is now the sole owner of the company they started together. If that transition doesn’t sound hard enough in its own right, after two years of school and a yearlong internship with GE, Schenck left Clarkson, jumping headfirst into the waters of his own ingenuity.
“For two years I plugged away and I worked [hard]. I was, as far as their standards go, doing really well,” Schenck recalled. Of his internship with GE, he continued “I probably had the best engineering job. I was single, I was 20 years old, living in Lake Tahoe, I had a GE credit card and I could fly around the West Coast installing their gadgets. Coolest thing.” But it wasn’t a life he was content to lead. When he thought about that job, which is where he would likely land after graduation, Schenck couldn’t accept the picture that was painted.
It wasn’t until the Christmas of his junior year while home on vacation that Schenck made the call that would launch him forward. He phoned up Clarkson, told them he wasn’t coming back, and asked them what he needed to do to finalize the issue. Apparently surprised, they offered him encouragement, saying he could always come back, and adding that they didn’t understand his decision. To that, Schenck replied, “you’ll figure it out.”
Some minds aren’t meant to be honed in classrooms, and Schenck quite obviously possesses one of those exceedingly independent organs. He credits his parents for their endless support, chronicling the phone calls he made while on a two month tour in Japan and the west coast promoting Renoun. When the ride got stressful, “they would tell me to go and sit on a beach, or a park bench,” prompting him to take time alone to reflect and re-center. However small the suggestions or gestures, “it was just having someone to listen, hearing me out, or a word of encouragement [that made a difference].”
As Renoun grows, Schenck may come to possess the financial mobility to move anywhere in the world. More likely, he will stay close to home. He speaks with an excited pride in regard to Burlington, and Vermont as a whole, citing the unique opportunities the location provides for its residents. “What Burlington has to offer as far as community, and nightlife, and being on the lake, [you can’t find other places]. You can go sailing in the summer and jump in your car and go skiing or snowshoeing. I mean we don’t have the biggest mountains, we don’t have the deepest snow, but we have stuff that nobody else has.”
To that list, we can now add Renoun Ski Company. Schenck will be moving into the Queen City shortly, and plans to continue working out of his space at the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. To learn more about Schenck, his skis, and his story, visit www.renounskicompany.com.