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Riding a wave of support to clean up the ocean

Startup is turning old fishing nets into skateboards

At any given time the world’s oceans are littered with plastic fishing nets.

Typically that trash would either drift along and perhaps ensnare a whale, sea turtle, or other marine life, or wash up on shore.

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But a Massachusetts native and two colleagues from the Northeast have a novel way to turn that pollution into something useful: recycling the nets into hip skateboards.

The three started a company, Bureo Skateboards, and have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to make their first run of cruiser-style skateboards. The Kickstarter campaign is scheduled through May 15 but Bureo has already received pledges far surpassing its goal of $25,000.

Moreover the company has received $10,000 from the accelerator program at Northeastern University, where cofounder Ben Kneppers of Mattapoisett received a degree in mechanical engineering in 2007.

You might expect to find this trendy startup in Boston’s Innovation District, or in the tech hothouse Kendall Square. But Kneppers and his cofounders are based in Santiago, Chile, where the three landed up after traveling the international circuit for jobs in their fields.

While their target markets includes the United States, the men for now are focused on removing pollution from the waters around Chile. The name of the company comes from the language of the native Chileans, the Mapuche, and means “the waves.”

Bureo is not just in reference to “ocean waves,” Kneppers said. “It’s about what we’re doing — trying to create this wave of change. If everyone does their part to create a ripple, then we’re all part of the bigger solution.”

The company’s other cofounders include David Stover of Block Island, R.I., and his fellow Lehigh University graduate Kevin Ahearn of Montauk, N.Y. The three met in Sydney, where Kneppers and Stover were working, and Ahearn was catching up with his college pal.

The New England natives roomed together and “bonded over skateboarding and surfing,” said Kneppers. They joined up again in Chile after Kneppers moved to Santiago for a job as a sustainability consultant.

And their adopted country has been helpful in getting the skateboard business rolling. Bureo received a $40,000 grant from Start-Up Chile, a government-sponsored program to incubate new businesses, after submitting an application that included a letter of recommendation from Patagonia, the eco-conscious outdoor company named after the wild region at the southern end of South America.

The Bureo team launched a campaign to collect old plastic nets from Chilean commercial fishermen, which are then sent to a manufacturing facility in Santiago where the plastic is recycled into skateboard decks. Each skateboard is made from about 30 square feet of fishnets.

In March the men scored a marketing moment when musician Jack Johnson, an avid surfer and environmentalist, jumped on one of their surfboards in front of the news media after a concert in Santiago.

They also briefly returned home in April, making a circuit through Boston that included stops at the New England Aquarium and local colleges to discuss their environmental business, and in New York, where they appeared at an Earth Day festival in Manhattan.

The company expects to have its first model, the Minnow, available on its website in June, and later this year in skateboard and surf shops in New England and California, Kneppers said. The Minnow will cost $60 for just the skateboard deck, and $135 for a complete setup. Supporters of the Kickstarter campaign who donate $135 will receive a Minnow.

The skateboard equipment industry is a multimillion dollar market, and Kneppers said the big target for anyone trying to enter the business is California.

“We look to first start our focus in California where there are four million surfers and skaters, and then continue on to the Northeast and carry on globally,” Kneppers said.

Bureo is making cruiser-style rides, which is the typical mid-sized board most people associate with skateboarding, as opposed to the longer plywood skateboards used in competitions such as the X Games.

Cary Allington, cofounder of ActionWatch, which follows the skate and surf industry, said plastic cruisers of the kind Brueo will make are very popular.

“They appeal to those beyond that core skaters who are reading skateboard magazines . . . and going out to learn tricks at a park,” Allington said. “Cruisers are just kind of a fun way to get from here to there.”

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com.
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