Rodolfo González and his Biofoam technology are making waves in Costa Rica by shaping a new future for cleaner surfboards
In an unassuming space behind a ceramics workshop on the winding road from San José to Santa Ana in Costa Rica, Rodolfo González is turning liquid into foam. “It’s like alchemy,” he exclaims as this transformative substance fills a surfboard-shaped mold. The resulting hardened foam becomes the blank for each board that González creates with his company Govan Project.
While the majority of surfboards made globally are done so using non-biodegradable plastic, most commonly polyurethane, González has spent 15 years testing formulas in the lab to crack the code for an eco-friendly alternative. His current product, known simply as Biofoam, is made from a renewable material (stemming from a native plant is as much as he will divulge of his secret formula), and it also affords an improved level of performance to those who use it out on the water.
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Growing up in Venezuela, González studied polymer engineering at university followed by a PhD in sustainable polymers. “My mother was a biology professor and with her encouragement I came to realize that all these ideas I had in my mind could be very useful once I learned the science behind it.” Furthering his motivation was an ever-present desire to nurture the environment around him. “Growing up there was a national park and a few big waterfalls only 20 minutes away from my house,” he says, as we drive five minutes down the road in the Lexus RX Hybrid to his home. “But there was such a contrast between the concrete capital of Caracas and nature, between different economic levels and how we live, it really made me reflect on what we are looking for.”
Arriving at the house he shares with his wife and business partner, Lindsay, a sense of calm pervades. A cluster of yoga mats and meditation cushions are piled up on one side of the expansive deck overlooking a lush tropical garden teeming with mango, banana and dragon fruit trees. It’s here where González and his wife spend time each morning practicing Tibetan yoga before they begin work. As an environmental lawyer and native Costa Rican, Lindsay plays a crucial role in their local business development. “It was about creating something that could really help, socially. We cannot develop a product that is eco-friendly if the people don't want to use it,” she says, stepping out onto their deck for coffee. “For us, it starts with a conversation with the shapers and surfers, asking, 'what do you really want for the environment? Do you really love the sea? Because, if you do, you could choose this eco-friendly option,'” she stresses. “We realize that not many people see what we see.”
The home of Rodolfo and Lindsay may be an 80-minute drive from the beach but this doesn’t stop them venturing out regularly to the Pacific coast. Having first bonded over a mutual passion for surfing, they now regularly take to the water. “The sensation of that first wave is like flying,” says González. “When you understand the swell, the movement and everything that is involved with nature—right there your life changes. In that moment your ego dissolves and you have to simply flow.”
With his engineering mindset, González is always testing performance levels and quick to observe the RX’s smooth response and confident traction to some less than smooth terrain as we drive out to the coast. “It’s interesting,” he begins. “Lexus has created this hybrid car but they are doing it without diminishing performance. And I think in a way we’re trying to do the same thing. We have a hybrid Biofoam, it’s not yet 100% made from renewable sources, and that’s a big challenge because we don’t want to lose performance for surfing. But maybe, if we’re using this foam for say, construction, we can make it 100%. That’s the next goal.” And the distinct parallels between Govan Project and Lexus don’t end with hybrid performance: aside from the Hybrid range of vehicles, Lexus continues to push green thinking with responsible recycling of steel alongside regular grants and fellowships to support innovation in sustainable engineering.
For Biofoam, part of the development process involved testing the surfboards, not just for durability but also to ensure competition-worthy performance. For González, this meant involving Costa Rican pro surfers such as Alvaro Solano or Oscar Urbina and pro shaper Javier Orna. “They’re always looking for the best surfboards,” he says, as we park close to a prime surfing spot. “I used to create boards in different colors for the different formulas,” he adds. “That way, each surfer could say ‘the red one was faster, or the yellow one didn’t have enough flex.’” Years of perfecting these boards now means that they’re being used at national and world championship level.
If there’s a unifying thread running through the work of Govan Project in Costa Rica, it’s one of conscious awareness. “I think our consciousness about nature gives us so much. For me, it's everything,” says González. “For us, the ocean definitely has a spiritual connection, too,” says Lindsay. “We have proven that it is possible to find solutions and I hope we can keep generating a benefit for the environment and for society,” adds Gonzalez before running out to the swell, the latest Biofoam board under his arm.