Nate Alder was scuba diving off the coast of Brazil when the idea struck him. It was 2006, and he was spending his summer break from Brigham Young University backpacking around the country and working on his advanced scuba certification. During one of the scuba seminars, he learned about how divers in cold climates pump argon gas into their dry suits for insulation. As a former snowboard instructor, he wondered if argon could be used to warm skiers and snowboarders too.
He returned to college, still with no declared major and no knowledge of chemistry but intent on exploring the possibilities of using the gas as an insulator. “I didn’t even know if argon was flammable or toxic,” jokes Alder, now 28. When his research revealed that argon is actually inert and used to extinguish fires in computer labs, he knew he was onto something. He began recruiting BYU business and engineering students and quickly assembled a crack team to flesh out argon-based outerwear that would enable wearers to adjust warmth by simply inflating or deflating a vest.
The group wrote a business plan and entered a BYU competition. “Our first prototype was basically a plastic pillow filled up with the gas,” Alder recalls. Although their idea was unprecedented—no one had ever tried trapping argon for use in cold-weather gear—they finished a somewhat disappointing fifth place and decided to disband. But Alder remained committed, perhaps even obsessed. Even though his engineering colleagues had estimated that it would cost $75,000 to create a working prototype, he doggedly combed through the Internet and various trade shows to find cheap usable parts, eventually cobbling together a prototype out of a home wine-preservation system, a bicycle pump, medical-grade IV valves and a pair of Reebok Pump basketball shoes for a mere $100.
“Lo and behold, it just happened to work,” Alder says. The team re-formed, dubbed the technology Klymit NobleTek Insulation, and had it independently tested. The researchers found that the argon vest bested both down- and synthetic-insulated vests in measures of warmth-to-weight, warmth-to-thickness and warmth when wet. “The potential of argon just blows anything else away,” Alder says. Five approved patent applications later, the group is working with the world’s largest airbag manufacturer to build Klymit’s four argon-equipped vests and a camping pad. Several other major outdoor-apparel makers are also considering licensing Klymit-equipped products.
Now that his company is successful, Alder is glad he saw his vision through to completion. “What gets me excited isn’t money or fame, it’s creating new solutions,” he says. “That’s where my niche is: looking at something in a different way.” —Mark Anders