From plastic pollution to sustainable skateboards

According to the old adage, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. For Northeastern alumnus Ben Kneppers, it’s actually an entire South American country’s trash that he is hoping to turn into a sustainable business.

Kneppers, who received his mechanical engineering degree in 2007, is co-founder of Bureo Skateboards, which aims to reduce the plastic pollution along Chile’s coastline and in its communities by molding it into skateboards.

Bureo is among the 85 businesses out of 1,300 applicants accepted into Start-Up Chile, a government-sponsored accelerator program that provides startups with $40,000 each to put their plans in action. The program’s mission is to attract early stage, high-potential entrepreneurs to bootstrap their startups in Chile, using it as a platform to go global, and ultimately make Chile the entrepreneurial hub of Latin America.

Bureo was the only non-technology based company accepted to the Start-Up Chile program. Kneppers called it a perfect match: “Chile gets a cleaner coastline and communities, and Bureo provides the most quality skateboard we can to the market,” he said.

Bureo Skateboards also received $10,000 in gap funding from IDEA, the Northeastern student-run venture accelerator. IDEA supports entrepreneurs through funding, coaching, and networking with services and resources.

Kneppers and co-founder David Stover, who met while they were both working as consultants in Australia, said the support they received from IDEA gave them confidence in their business plan and guidance at a critical point for their startup.

“These guys are an example of our system working at is best,” said IDEA CEO Max Kaye. “It’s ventures like this that really take full advantage of the different resources every step of the way. We are proud to be involved and we can’t wait to see what they can do down there.”

Kneppers was living and working in Santiago, Chile’s capital city, last year when he recognized an opportunity to help Chilean communities, especially those in rural areas where recycling programs are limited.

In the country’s larger metropolitan areas, the recycling rate is estimated to be about 12 percent, compared to 35 percent in the United States. Each one of Bureo’s skateboard decks will utilize about three pounds of plastic.

Kneppers will depart for Chile next week, and Stover will join him in November. Start-Up Chile’s program for Generation 8 begins Nov. 4. Once in Chile, they will start sourcing plastic, recycling it, and preparing the skateboard molds for production. Then, they will shift their focus to their launch in the United States. The first Bureo skateboards are expected to hit the market next spring.

The Bureo team will provide updates on product development and progress in Chile through its website and Facebook page.

Kneppers credited Northeastern’s co-op program with developing his passion for sustainability. For one of his co-ops he worked at a refugee camp in Zambia where he worked with a local all-star soccer team to help raise awareness about AIDS/HIV safety within the camp. To make sure the project was sustainable, the group also purchased a former bar in the community that they converted into a community center where people could buy items and proceeds would fund AIDS/HIV education programs.

“I got to walk out of Northeastern with an incredible resume and worldly experiences that let me find what my deeper passions were,” Kneppers said.