Rob Falken is a surfer. So how did a man who’s passionate about a shoeless sport end up becoming the VP of global innovation at a footwear company?
Commitment, perseverance, and a boatload of energy.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s a world-renowned inventor and materials developer, too.
At 18 years old, Rob founded his first company out of necessity. He needed surf wax and he needed money. So he set up shop in a rented garage by the beach and put his interest in chemistry to work. After five years, Magma was one of the largest surf wax producer in the world, and he sold the company. By his early twenties, Rob had some money in his pocket and an insatiable drive to discover environmentally-minded solutions to age-old problems.
Over the next 15 years or so, Rob built an international network of connections with scientists, fellow inventors, and businesses drawn to better solutions.
Fast forward to late 2017 when Rob met with OrthoLite CEO Glenn Barrett to pitch a potential product. The technology wasn’t a fit, but Barrett liked Rob’s focus. Barrett basically said, “So what else do you have?”
It’s fair to say Rob’s answer impressed him. He’s not just someone who keeps up with the latest scientific news, he’s out there getting his hands dirty and his mind engaged. He’s an idealist who never loses sight of real-world applications. Just over one year later, in 2019, Rob officially joined the OrthoLite team leading global innovation.
OrthoLite (OLT): We’re asking everyone about their shoes. But considering you’re a surfer, the more logical question is, “Are you even wearing shoes right now?”
Rob Falken (RF): Ha. I’m wearing flip flops actually, but my feet are pretty beat up and ugly from skateboarding barefoot for many years, so I don’t really wear them outside too often; you know, trying to save society the ghastly horror of seeing my hooves (joking).
OLT: Flip flops or sneakers?
OLT: The word “innovation” can sometimes get watered down by marketing-speak. After two decades of genuinely leading the charge in environmentally-minded materials development, what’s your take on the status of real innovation at OrthoLite?
RF: It’s unbelievable. The amount of innovation that’s coming through this company right now is ridiculous. Just last night, we had another huge breakthrough on something that I can’t talk about yet. The point is that the culture and dedication to pushing the needle is real.
OLT: You originally pitched Glenn Barrett (OrthoLite CEO) on a product that he didn’t buy, then he ended up hiring you. What did you say to him?
RF: My entire philosophy is built on three things. I look for technological breakthroughs (one), that make a demonstrable difference in people’s lives (two), and contribute to a cleaner, healthier environment (three). So I told Glenn to reengineer the raw materials and the process.
OLT: Oh, is that all? Just reengineer…everything?
RF: [Laughs] Well, the cool thing is that we’re doing it. That meeting in 2018 started us down a path…more like barreling down a path. It’s really fun. It’s been a full team effort, but I think Glenn and John Barrett were willing to give me a lot of latitude as the new kid. They’ve really let the madman run wild! But to everyone’s credit, it’s been with their watchful eye and experience.
OLT: So you’re reengineering the raw materials and the process of making footwear components?
RF: Yep. I’m not joking about the commitment to innovation in this company. We’re coming in with this alien technology. It’s viable, scalable, real, and here today. The footwear industry has never seen anything like it.
OLT: Ha! We know you can’t say anymore right now. In general terms, how do you hope to influence OrthoLite in your role as innovator in chief?
RF: Honestly, innovation is baked into OrthoLite and the people that make this brand what it is. Everyone shares this spirit of always looking around the corner to figure out a better way. My job is to keep fostering that. From my own experience, innovation has always come from a need, combined with a purpose and the drive to get it done.
OLT: How has your personal experience shaped your approach?
RF: Going way back, I launched my surf wax company as a teenager because I needed a job and I loved surfing. Being in the ocean every day made me environmentally conscious to the natural world, and I felt a sense of responsibility to it. That sense of purpose around the environment gave me the confidence boost to invent something–to try to make a change.
OrthoLite has a mission and a vision around sustainability. It’s really two buckets: material and process. The cleanest material coupled with the cleanest process. With my own background and values, it’s easy for me to get fired up about the environmental side of innovation. It’s fun to talk about that stuff; it’s the sexy side of it. It’s science and art and good colliding in the best possible way.
We also have responsibilities to our brand partners to deliver innovative product solutions that fulfill our promise of comfort, performance, and sustainability. And you know what? I love the logistics side, too. Some of the most meaningful innovations actually happen in this realm. This is where we can deliver new and better options for our partners and consumers. We value these relationships and we’re always looking for how we can better support them.
OLT: At heart, you’re an inventor. Whether small steps or huge leaps forward, creating something better is the heart of innovation. How do you keep that spark lit for yourself and the OrthoLite team?
RF: It’s passion and perseverance. There’s no end to what can be done. And we have a responsibility to keep pushing because OrthoLite is a part of billions–literally billions–of shoes.
We’re never compromising on performance or comfort. The opportunities are really in how we can deliver exceptional performance and comfort with better environmental performance and processes. I think that spark stays lit when we approach inventing and innovation as art. The options to create are limitless, but our brand name goes on the result. What do we want our brand name to represent?
Simply put: We want our brand to reflect positive change. We want to do the least amount of harm. You want to join us on that journey? Great! That’s what we’re about.
OLT: Thanks, Rob. Can’t wait to hear about what’s around the corner for OrthoLite and our partners.