It's what led him to launch a career in product development, composites, and design – including a stint at Ferrari in Italy. And it's what led him to form Blackbird Guitar, and now Lingrove, maker of advanced materials that have the potential to take the place of one of the most overly harvested, climate-impacting resources: wood. Or, as Joe puts it: "We are engineering natural materials to leave trees in the ground for the future."
He founded Blackbird Guitar when he realized that guitar players (like him) needed a great-sounding guitar that was light and strong (for taking on the road). He knew he wanted to get away from using wood, so he started working in carbon fiber, making extraordinary and now collectors'-grade black guitars that garnered rave reviews.
But it turned out that carbon fiber wasn't exactly sustainable or easy to work with. So he began a multi-year exploration of alternative materials that ultimately led him to create Ekoa, a revolutionary new material that combines flax linen-fiber and plant-based resin. Ekoa® outperforms wood in strength-to-weight, moldability, and durability. It's ultra-light, ultra-strong, and ultra-sustainable. In fact, it's CO2-negative.
Ekoa's not just for making ukuleles and guitars (though they are used in Blackbird's El Capitan and Savoy guitars.) Joe sees Ekoa used in many places wood is used today: car interiors, bikes, sporting equipment, even furniture.
Rather than designing and manufacturing products, Joe and the Lingrove team (based out of a studio-factory in San Francisco's Mission district) partners with product designers and companies to spur the adoption of Ekoa, providing product development, design, and manufacturing support services. At the same time, Joe's a sought-after speaker on innovation, sustainability, and manufacturing, helping raise the profile of Ekoa – and its importance for the planet – wherever he goes.
We got a chance to connect with Joe, to get a little more of the story.
What got you into developing what is an advanced material? What was that moment that you realized that it’s what you needed to do?
Simply knowing it could be done. I read about natural materials being used instead of carbon fiber. At that point in 2008, Blackbird Guitars had been making carbon fiber guitars for a couple of years and had a group of students do a rough life cycle assessment. Turns out carbon was worse than the wood extracted from rainforests that continues to be the material of choice. It was at that point that I knew I needed to find an alternative. Five years later we launched our first Ekoa® ukulele made from natural fibers and resins.
Ekoa®, made from flax
What are your real hopes for it (both the business and the broader mission.) What could you REALLY be?
We see natural fibers, which grow in three months versus decades + for quality wood, as the structural material of the future. Put another way, if it works for acoustic instruments, which require the stiffness-to-weight of steel, then it will work for your home/office/car. Being lighter and made of low carbon or even carbon negative inputs (materials), we see Ekoa® at scale being a key solution to reducing the 11% of greenhouse gases from the materials used to build our buildings.
Part of what you’re looking to do is to get product and industrial designers, and makers working with Ekoa. What are the challenges? What is most exciting for you? What’s the product that would make you SO proud to have it in play?
We launched our Lingrove Loft program with the recognition that the big companies we are partnering with will take some time to get to market. In the meantime, we are looking for a few small companies/designers that have ideas and can see a project through to market. The most exciting applications are at the intersection of wonder / impact. I don't want to be more prescriptive than that. Our Ekoa® material is lighter than carbon fiber and stiffer than aerospace fiberglass so the options are expansive. The challenges are simply the limits of a designer's imagination
Ekoa®, for furniture, guitars, surfaces...and beyond
For companies like you, creating (or enabling the creation of) physical product in the Bay Area, what’s the biggest challenge? Do you think there's a role or need for manufacturing in expensive regions like ours?
Folks are always excited to hear of something physical versus digital. That said, increasingly I see the big digital folks hiring all the quality talent. We need these folks to help solve the world's big challenges! The Bay Area is definitely forward-thinking in terms of green building so that helps.
What is the hardest thing about what you’re doing?
Explaining what a composite material is and how it can change the world!
All images courtesy of Lingrove.