Growing up in Shelburne, Vt., Cyrus Schenck played with Legos, catapults and remote-control airplanes. And he flew a real plane, getting his pilot’s license before he could drive a car. But as early as age 2, what the boy loved best was skiing.
Schenck’s interests converged at Clarkson when he was a freshman in 2009, majoring in aeronautical engineering. “It has great engineering and outdoor programs,” he says. “And it has snow.” His education here set him on an entrepreneurial course that has left fresh tracks in the ski industry.
He calls it RENOUN. Spell his company name the other way (renown), and that’s what Schenck has earned for his award-winning skis made to mimic a car’s suspension. No one else sells anything like them.
It started in the fall of 2010, when Schenck and five Clarkson friends were headed again to Jay Peak for the weekend. All engineering students, he, Cameron Jones, Ryan Ericson, Greg Bright, Bob Pelletier and Don Lienau had often talked during the 3-hour drive about “building a ski with better maneuverability,” he recalls. “We realized it would take more than engineering principles to set ourselves apart.”
The following spring, they founded RENOUN, named with the help of Scrabble letters: “It sounded good and alluded to something way bigger than just us.”
That summer, Schenck worked the window-washing business he had started as a high school senior. Then, he took a paid internship with General Electric, flying around the country installing monitoring devices in gas turbines and hydroelectric dams.
One day in a Lake Tahoe Starbucks, he designed RENOUN’s first ski press, a machine that laminates the layers of wood and other materials. By the fall of 2011, Schenck and the others started working on a prototype in a 12 x 20-foot room in Clarkson’s Shipley Center for Innovation. They also turned to the Reh Center for Entrepreneurship for help. “We were searching for a value proposition.”
Then in a materials science and engineering class Schenck took, the professor showed a graph of the ratio of stress to the rate of strain of a particular polymer. It was the numbers that did it for Schenck. He thought of Dr. Seuss’ Oobleck, which he remembered making out of cornstarch and water as a kid, gooey until you worked it with your hands and then suddenly turning hard. Oobleck and that polymer join many other non-Newtonian fluids. When a force is applied to them, unlike Newtonian fluids, their viscosities change dramatically, some more so than others.
Schenck found out that the classroom polymer had long been used for reducing aircraft vibration and creating impact protection. He could just see it cutting ski “chatter.” Wanting to give his all to RENOUN, over Christmas break, the junior Honors student informed Clarkson he wasn’t coming back.
“They wished me the best of luck and said if I ever wanted to return, I was in, no questions asked,” he says.
After months of searching out suppliers, Schenck convinced one to sell him enough polymer to test three mock-ups. He and his team built one ski without the polymer and two with varying amounts and sent them to their Clarkson friend, Tyler Arsenault, who had a PhD in vibration mechanics. The ski filled with the most polymer, at the highest speed tested, showed a jaw-dropping 300-percent increase in stability.
The results suggested that the skis adjusted — in a flash — to the skier and the snow conditions. “So the faster you ski or the harder or icier the snow, the stiffer the skis and the less they vibrate, while the slower you go and the softer the snow, the more flexible the skis,” says Schenck. One pair of all-mountain skis for any situation you might face on the slopes sure beats wondering which pair out of your quiver you should take that day.
Schenck got a patent for what he termed Hyper Dampning Technology™ (HDT™) for use in skis, an industry first. “We also were the first to put the polymer in a hard-goods product,” he says. Through the 2013 - 2014 winter, the six partners turned out 30 pairs of skis for friends to try out.
And the skis worked.
RENOUN was on the move, and all that window-washing played a big financial part. But getting investors meant going solo. In the fall of 2014, Schenck bought out the others and turned ski-building over to a Quebec company. In December, he flew to Japan with a pair of skis and some of the polymer to show how it glopped off his hand one moment and, when slammed down on a table, turned rock-solid the next. Retailers’ mouths went agape, but no checkbooks opened up. So Schenck flew to Seattle, bought a truck and worked the West, including a big Denver trade show. Again, no sales.
“I’ve run out of money more times than I can count. I wanted to quit at every turn, but the thought of being outsmarted by someone really annoys me. You learn by fire. You learn fast or you’ll fail. It also takes grit and perseverance. And I’m very lucky to have a network of incredibly helpful people who are willing to put their energy, time and money into this business. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
In part because of his mother, Schenck won the prestigious ISPO Gold Award 2015-2016, from the Internationale Fachmesse für Sportartikel und Sportmode, the world’s largest sporting goods and sportswear trade fair, held annually in Munich. His mother sent the organization a pair of his skis without him knowing. “This really catapulted the company onto the fast track,” says Schenck of the award, which he accepted at the Munich event. Articles in The New York Times and USA Today followed. And it didn’t hurt to win first prize and $30,000 at LaunchVT, a business-pitch competition for young entrepreneurs.
By then, RENOUN had tripled production, and the numbers have doubled again. For good reason. “People who use our skis say they're the best they’ve ever skied, and they can do runs like never before,” says Schenck, who’s determined to do more skiing himself.
On or off the slopes, “I get to support people who are pushing their bodies, by building better skis for them.”
He also wants to push and challenge the industry. “My goal has always been to be a catalyst,” says Schenck, whose plans include expanding beyond skis and the snow-sports industry. “Years from now, I want people to look back and say, ‘There’s a company that rewrote the rules, and that company is RENOUN.’”