Equipped with a WiFi connection and a clever idea, entrepreneurs are no longer confined to the city; indeed, some of America’s buzziest start-ups are percolating in the Wood River Valley, where the region’s natural draws and a liberal bring-your-dogs-everywhere policy have inspired the area’s creative class to base their businesses here.
From mobile apps to military gear, Blaine County’s most exciting ventures are quickly filling the void left by former job providers Smith and Scott. Despite the drawbacks to headquartering a business in a resort town (seasonal air service, a small full-time workforce from which to draw), keep-it-local advocates such as Jon Duval, founder of the Ketchum Innovation Center, underscore that living in the Valley is still considerably cheaper than Seattle and San Francisco, without the rain and away from the rat race.
Duval’s two-year-old incubator, a project funded by the city’s Community Development Corporation, is part mentorship program, part co-working space for the 80 companies in its portfolio. Prospective participants can look forward to the Innovation Center’s spacious new digs downtown, set to open this summer, though most notable is the center’s fundraising success: more than $1.25 million awarded to four different companies over six pitch nights.
Unlike nearby Twin Falls, which lured national corporations like Chobani and Clif to expand there, initiatives in the Wood River Valley are decidedly homegrown. Said Duval: “The exodus of Smith and Scott revealed locals’ desire to create their own projects. We’re fostering a dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem right here.”
In the winter of 2012, Scott Watanabe was snowboarding down Bald Mountain when he received a cold call from the San Diego-based engineer Darren Fleming about a business idea. Watanabe, an action-sports industry executive for 35 years—he previously directed Scott’s motor sports division—was, in his words, “having a good time” on a mid-career break after the company shifted operations from Ketchum that fall. But he was intrigued by Fleming’s pitch: a flexible yet super supportive knee brace that would revolutionize sports medicine with its lightweight construction and a unique continuous cable routing system restricting movement, and therefore injury, to soft-tissue ligaments.
Mobius launched its first model, the X8, in March 2015—the glass-filled nylon brace, available in multiple sizes and colors, retails as a pair for $599 at more than 1,000 stores worldwide (as well as at Ski Tek and PK’s Ski and Sports locally)—and has found a cult following among both professional athletes like motocross racer Ryan Villapoto and active amateurs battling aging joints.
Nearing patent approval for its continuous cable technology (partly inspired by the 19th century Möbius strip), the orthopedic surgeon-approved brand—which has piqued the interest of medical suppliers and even the NFL—will add a wrist brace and a compression sleeve to its product line this year, plus a youth-sized X8 brace developed for teenage skiers. “It’s like the helmet a decade ago,” explained Mobius’ marketing director, Reidar Oyen. “Now everyone is wearing one.”
“There was something lacking in the marketplace when it came to cameras,” said Eric Dobbie, head of U.S. sales for the two-year-old helmet-mounted camera brand Mohoc. “Nobody had customized a product for military and law enforcement.”
Dobbie, along with three of his former colleagues at the ballistic optics manufacturer Eyewear Safety Systems, relied on input from past clients to produce a rugged, curvilinear camera that mounts, via Velcro, onto helmets without any attachments. Mohoc’s first model arrived in September 2015; six months later, the Ketchum company has shipped 2,000 products to members of the U.S. military (the low-profile design is favored by Special Forces moving in tight spaces) for training and intel gathering, and to SWAT and canine policing squads across the country (a harness mount for dogs is in the works).
While the line is geared toward specialty markets, Mohoc’s durability (the zinc aluminum-encased device can withstand a two-meter drop) has led skydivers and paragliders to purchase the $549 camera online. With members of up to 25 international militaries also buying Mohoc, the next phase for its founders is to further disrupt the industry by contracting with the Department of Defense rather than distributing to individuals.
“Unlike eyewear or helmets, which must meet certain standards to be used in combat, there is no official camera program currently,” Dobbie explained. “At Mohoc, we’re developing a new requirement.”
“For women like myself who wear Calvin Klein and Alexander Wang, there’s no activewear,” explained Megan Lengyel, founder of the emerging clothing label SQN Sport, “so I saw a market for performance-oriented designs with restraint.” The Portland native began sketching silhouettes for SQN (which stands for the Latin phrase Sine Qua Non, or only the essential) a few years back and launched the fabric-focused, monochromatic line (think The Row for yogis) with seven basics—seamless leggings, soft-on-the-skin tanks—before partnering with garment industry vet Sunny Mills on production and retail operations.
SQN opened its first store, an airy, industrial-chic space on Sun Valley Road, in November 2014, and after a profitable Christmas season, added an outpost of SQN in Aspen the following summer. Now, the upstart boasts nine full-time employees, with more to come after two more boutiques, including a Malibu shop, open later this year.
Lengyel has big plans: expanding into menswear and teaming with a national retailer, but she remains steadfastly local. The now-36-piece collection is American-made; lookbooks and logos are designed in Hailey; and when it comes to test-driving new concepts, Lengyel recruits Ketchum’s fitness experts (and a few Olympic athletes) to ensure that SQN’s mission—offering “materials that are bullet-proof but feel great,” she said—always stays on track.