After beating the shoelace the increasing Boa Innovation sells for $454 million

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Gary Hammerslag remembers more than 20 years ago watching snowboarders and hockey players struggling with shoelaces. He was new to Colorado and snowboarding back then, a recent transplant from Southern California, where he had created and sold a company that made the hairlike wires doctors threaded through clogged veins during angioplasty procedures.

As the athletes yanked on century-old technology, Hammerslag thought he could do better. After a few years of tinkering in a small office in Steamboat Springs, he built Boa Technology, an innovative lacing system that uses wires — not unlike those he developed for plaque-blasting doctors — to cinch shoes to feet.

Now the company has its revolutionary dial-it-tight fit system laced through more than 400 brands of shoes, boots and even medical braces. The company has offices in Europe and Asia and more than 230 employees, including about 150 at its Denver headquarters. And earlier this month, a publicly traded investment company announced it was paying $454 million for Boa Technology, marking one of the largest ever deals for a Colorado outdoors brand. 

“Looking back, I did kind of see that it was possible to get this far,” said Hammerslag, whose initial quest to vanquish the shoelace has evolved into science-based fit and performance technology. “You know there are a lot of shoes in the world. So this is remarkable, but not completely unexpected.”

Boa Technology and its Boa Fit System have grown a lot since 2001, when K2 and Vans took a chance on Hammerslag’s first-of-its-kind lacing system for their snowboard boots. The company has almost 160 patents and is all over snowboarding, cycling, golf and hiking shoes, is expanding rapidly into trail running, hiking, mountaineering and court sports, and is pushing its innovation into helmets, safety equipment and medical braces. 

Connecticut-based Compass Diversified Holdings wants to make Boa Technology the 10th company in a stable of middle-market consumer and industrial brands, including Aurora circuit-board maker Advanced Circuits. The 15-year-old company purchased 19 businesses and sold 10 of those between 2006 and 2019. The nearly half-billion dollar price tag is the largest ever paid by Compass Diversified, which once owned CamelBak and Fox Factory and this spring spent $200 million on baseball and softball equipment maker Marucci.

In a presentation to investors late last month, Compass executives pointed to Boa Technology’s recently launched Performance Fit Lab and studies with the University of Denver showing improved performance by athletes using the Boa lacing system. They also pointed out Boa’s almost 160 patents and another 85 pending. Compass leaders said Boa Technology posts $30 million in annual earnings from more than $100 million in revenue.

In outlining the primary reasons for buying the company, Compass CEO Elias Sabo said the roughly 16 million to 17 million pairs of sports shoes sold every year with Boa lacing systems represent only 3% of the roughly 700 million pairs of sports shoes sold around the globe.

 “This leaves a tremendous amount of white space for Boa to capitalize,” Sabo said in the presentation. 

Boa Technology Inc., CEO Shawn Neville said the company is revolutionizing fit using designs perfected at its Performance Fit Lab in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Taking performance into the lab

Shawn Neville joined Boa Technology as chief executive in 2017 and last year he launched a new partnership with the University of Denver to conduct independent studies that measure the effect of the Boa fit system. The company’s new Performance Fit Lab deployed DU athletes and the school’s Human Dynamic Laboratory to study speed, power, explosiveness and energy efficiency. Early research showed when athletes shifted from shoes with laces to those with Boa’s dial, their performance improved up to 5%. 

The studies have helped the development of new cycling, running and golf shoes. More studies are pushing the Boa technology into tennis, hiking and other sports. 

“What has been really cool about the success of Boa is how we evolved our ambition over time,” Neville said. “We no longer want to replace laces. We want to revolutionize fit.”

Dan Feeney, left, manager of biomechanics research and the Performance Fit Lab, and Kate Harrison, Boa Biomechanist, are in the Performance Fit Lab inside Boa Technology Inc., running the Boa Saucony Switchback 2 through a rigorous testing on a pair of trail running shoes on October 13, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. The Performance Fit Lab tests how the Boa product and configuration impact athletic performance.(Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It was K2 and Vans that really floated Boa right out of the gate. They were the first companies to sign on to the new technology, debuting the pioneering lacing system in two new models. Now there are almost 60 models of snowboard boots — made by Burton, K2, Vans, Salomon, Ride and DC — with the dialed-fit Boa system. 

Neville said K2 and Vans were the “linchpin” of Boa’s success while the adoption more than a decade later by snowboarding giant Burton “was the exclamation point that reinforced the power of what we have done.” 

Tim Petrick, the former president and chief executive of K2 Sports, remembers his engineers approaching him with the new Boa technology in the early 2000s. They weaved the Boa wires into some test boots and got them out to the brand’s pro riders.  

“They were really super enthusiastic about performance and adjustability,” said Petrick, who eventually saw the Boa fit technology installed on all K2 snowboard boots. “We went all in.”

K2 also threaded Boa into hundreds of thousands of products, including snowshoes, inline skates, running shoes and helmets. 

“We were certainly one of the first people to help them legitimize the technology and helped give it prominence,” Petrick said. “We were huge supporters and early adopters of the technology and we were very successful with it.”

Once Boa banished the laces on snowboard boots, cycling was next.

After biking’s Specialized embraced Boa more than a decade ago, just about every major cycling shoe brand leaped into the dial-up Boa world. (There are 150 types of road and mountain bike cycling shoes with the Boa system.)

The Boa Fit System, the H4 Coiler on a DC snowboard boot inside Boa Technology Inc., on October 13, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The performance lab on the ground floor of his company’s River North headquarters is drawing even more brands into the Boa fold and the stable is growing beyond shoes, with snowshoes, helmets, gloves, inline skates, mountaineering boots, ski boots and even fishing kayaks. Neville calls the brands that adopt Boa Technology “partners.”

“We don’t just throw them our parts,” he said. “We spend months and sometimes years creating products with them.”

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