Last October’s Chicago Marathon served as the first-round real-life test bed for a prototype running shoe from Brooks Sports, Inc., that features a carbon fiber sole plate developed by Arris Composites, Inc. At today’s Boston Marathon, they’ll conduct another round of shoe tests.
If the Chicago results are any indication, today’s results could be a potential gold mine. “Zach Panning got our shoe 72 hours before the race,” said Lee Sackett, Footwear Product Line Manager at Brooks, about last fall’s race. “He tested it on a 10k run and decided to run the marathon in it. He ran a 2:09:28, and cut five minutes off his PR.”
Obviously there’s a lot more than just the shoe that went into Panning’s superb 11th-place finish in Chicago. But those results still had to cause a lot of celebrating at Brooks and Arris, since their collaboration is firmly aimed at creating a breakthrough running shoe.
It’s difficult to separate out sales leaders for running shoes alone, since apparel is usually thrown into the mix too. But Brooks, a Seattle-based subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, is consistently ranked by runners themselves as one of the top shoemakers in the business.
Arris, meanwhile, is a developer of continuous carbon fiber composites for a variety of applications based in Berkeley, California, that closed its last funding round in November 2021, an $88.5 million round that brought the company’s total funding to $147 million. “We started our company working in consumer electronics,” said Arris’s CEO and co-founder Riley Reese. “From there, we realized we had opportunities in a lot of other sectors. We got into footwear two and a half years ago. It’s now much larger than we expected–every shoemaker is using a carbon fiber plate, and everybody who runs wants it.”
It’s that plate, a thin, stiff carbon fiber insert that’s molded into the sole of the shoe, that’s the basis for the new partnership.
For Brooks, Arris’s footwear experience and a lot more about the company made them an excellent collaborator for the new shoe design. “We’ve been on the cutting edge on materials, but not necessarily on carbon fiber,” explained Sackett. “While this is our first partnership with Arris, and the first one of this pedigree, we’ve been using carbon fiber in our shoes since 2018. It’s become especially critical in racing–the stiffness-to-weight ratio is unmatched. For an elite racing shoe, it’s about transferring power to the ground.”
"From a strength-to-weight and stiffness-to-weight perspective, carbon fiber is better than metal and better than other composite fiber types," added Reese. "In addition to lightweighting, footwear developers value energy return, tunable stiffness, and sustainability. The Arris tech achieves all four of those aspects."
Beyond the deep expertise in using carbon fiber in elite footwear that Arris brought to the table, Brooks is seeing other benefits as well. “With Arris, we’re able to execute a plate we could never do before,” said Sackett. “But they can also digitize our plate design and simulate the forces to optimize the plate design and the amount of carbon fiber in the sole. Arris has been able to take our biomechanical engineering expertise and use it to simulate, test, and optimize the shoe design. The old way of doing things, we would prototype the plate, then build a shoe around it and test it, then repeat that over and over. It could take seven years. With Arris, we don’t have to go to mold 60 times to get the shoe right.”
For Arris, the process deepens the company’s know-how in ways that then feed back into other areas of their business. “We’re working on improvements in the aerospace and auto industries that focus on lightweighting too–think about extending battery range for an EV,” Reese said. "Wearables focus a lot on design space as well as weight. It’s about high performance at scale and bringing different benefits to each industry.”
“Take a step back from running,” Sackett said. “This partnership shows what two companies on the cutting edge can do for human potential.”
Today’s race is another step in that direction. “We took the first round [in Chicago] and got feedback from women and men, from runners all around the globe. This is round two in Boston, and after that, hopefully in a couple months we’ll be in production. We’re aiming for a February 2024 launch, in time for the Olympic Trials. We want to make something that works with the body, something that makes things better for the world of exercise.”
For Reese, it goes further still. “We’re focused on sustainability,” he said. “Composites are super-wasteful. We’ve developed a process to take scrap composites and realign and remold them. Recycle does not have to mean low performance.”