Chronicle 18: Tetsuya Ohara

April 21, 2023


Rubber Chronicles

A man standing with boat sails

Tetsuya Ohara | It's About the Journey — Timeline of the first plant-based wetsuit

2005 | Patagonia enters into the wetsuit business and uses limestone-based polychloroprene for most of its neoprene products. They quickly came to the conclusion that whether neoprene (or polychloroprene) made from oil-based butadiene or acetylene made by crushing limestone, both have a significant environmental impact. And the search for a renewable material begins.

2009 | Yulex "pitches" Patagonia a plant-based foam to replace neoprene.

2010 | Yulex & Patagonia enter into a Development Agreement.

2013 | Patagonia launches the first wetsuit made from natural rubber from Guayule, a latex producing desert shrub that was being domesticated by Yulex in Arizona at the time. Yulex Nexkin wetsuit wins the Environmental Product of the Year and Wetsuit of the Year at the 2014 Surf Industry Manufacturers Awards (SIMA).

2016-2017 | Patagonia launches the first plant-based wetsuit made from Yulex certified-natural rubber from Hevea, the “rubber tree”. Patagonia wins the Innovation Award & Environmental Product of the Year at the Australian Surf Industry Awards, and an ISPO Product Award at ISPO.

2023 | Adoption of Yulex natural rubber foams by ~20 wetsuit, swimwear and triathlon brands.

Patagonia sustainable wetsuit
Image: Patagonia's tag line for their Yulex wetsuit from Guayule natural rubber (2013)

From Seed to Suit

Tetsuya Ohara, then Patagonia's Director of Advanced R&D, can tell you what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Tetsuya was there for each of the milestones above until 2016, including the not so short (2 hour) pitch- when Jeff promised Yvon that Yulex' plant-based replacement for neoprene could be warm, flexible and light- although all he had was a foam sample and no wetsuit had been made. Patagonia believed and development ensued.

It would be the longest commercial development Tetsuya has been involved with - 4 years. But hey commercializing game-changing technology is not easy. After all the excitement and awards, and almost 10 years from the first Yulex wetsuit launch, adoption by the big surf brands is increasing as Yulex expands its manufacturing partners.

Auld Mug- There is no second

Synchrodestiny is a way to consciously influence our life path- what Carl Jung referred to as acausal coincidence.

Tetsuya met Yvon 10 years before he actually worked for him. They met at a Surfrider Foundation Japan meeting in 1993 where Yvon was speaking against the installation of a concrete seawall on Kamogawa Beach in Chiba, known for its great surf in Japan. Tetsuya had never heard of Patagonia nor of Yvon, but he was inspired by the Company's mission of using business to bring solutions to the environmental crisis. He had never thought about mission driven businesses being a part of the sustainability solution; or that one person like Yvon could effect change from the bottom up.

Tetsuya in his 20s was then an industrial fabric developer for Teijin (Japan), which was the official sailcloth supplier for the Nippon Challenge America's Cup team in 1992 and 1995. His passion for design of simple, functional and durable goods matches his own self-defined zen simplicity. The best designers know what customers want and need, even when the customers don't. Design inspires.

His work and experience in the America's Cup got him noticed and he was recruited by a Teijin competitor to the U.S. Later with the modified spinnaker fabric, he helped design the Dragonfly jacket (now the Houdini) for Patagonia. With that Tetsuya transitions from the sailing industry into the fashion and apparel industry. Both sailing spinnakers and jackets use a super-thin, lightweight nylon (a 15 denier Nylon 66 fiber) that is wind resistant. Finally, after 10 years from their first meeting in Japan, Tetsuya joins Patagonia in 2003, as their material development specialist and works for Yvon for the next 13 years. He joined Patagonia 2 years before the company decided to get into the wetsuit business.

Are you starting to believe in synchrodestiny now? *The America’s Cup is affectionately called “Auld Mug'. It’s the oldest active trophy in international sport and named after the schooner America, which won a race around the Isle of Wight in 1851 against 14 of the best boats in Britain. It was also famously put that it was the race with no second place.

Meditation, Buddhism and Authenticity

Meditation helps us focus and calms the mind- re-centering us. Tetsuya learned from his Buddhist parents how to meditate starting at age 3. His practice of Buddhism and meditation are still essential in his life. Both teach that the basic premise that life happens in spite of our goals, demands or wishes. Hence, we need to be present and enjoy the process and detach ourselves from the outcomes (goals, demands, wishes).

After 13 years, he left Patagonia to lead innovation at the GAP Inc., a fast-pace, execute every 3 months type of company culture. Although he learned a lot, he took his own advise and stopped chasing something new, instead only taking those opportunities that inspire him and where he can inspire others. His passion has always been to help companies and people be more authentic in their approach to sustainability and business.

Tetsuya now has a mission-driven consulting business. He advises Company Boards and Universities alike by leveraging his decades of know-how, connections and experience in different industries to share and inspire. As an independent advisor, speaker and lecturer he helps to advise what struck him as remarkable about Yvon back in 1993- that businesses can make high-quality products and do less harm to the environment. In fact, they might just do some good.

Image: Young Tetsuya with his mother in Kyoto. Tetsuya's mother (91) was a serial entrepreneur with the hybrid mindset of Western and Eastern. She could seen wearing a traditional kimono and driving a Jaguar with Italian sunglass.

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