San Francisco biocomposites maker Lingrove moves production to San Rafael
Editor’s note: This story was originally published May 22, 2023.
A San Francisco guitar maker has picked Marin County to dramatically scale up production of a natural-fiber composite material originally designed for durable, lightweight acoustic guitars.
The founder of Blackbird Guitars intends to put the composite material to use in much bigger markets such as commercial interiors, furniture manufacturing and even car dashboards.
An avid backpacker as well as luthier, Joe Luttwak started Blackbird Guitars in 2005 and began using carbon-fiber composite to build acoustic guitars that could still ring true despite the bumps and temperature swings of the trail. In 2008 his team started experimenting with flax fibers and plant-based resins to develop their own material. Within a decade, the company had developed Ekoa and started using it to make Blackbird’s distinct hollow-neck instruments.
Blackbird had produced Ekoa overseas but then started onshoring manufacturing.
Luttwak spun off production of Ekoa with the launch of Lingrove in late 2017 with co-founders Desi Banatao and Elaine Chow. That was the time when Blackbird started shifting its guitars from carbon fiber to Ekoa material.
By the closing of its series A funding round in November 2021, Lingrove has raised $5.6 million so far from four investors, including IndieBio and Helium-3 Investors, according to Crunchbase. Luttwak declined to say how much revenue the private company takes in.
It has been making Ekoa at Blackbird’s 7,000-square-foot plant in San Francisco’s Mission District in addition to using European manufacturers.
The San Francisco location became problematic for staging the supply and shipment trucks, Luttwak said.
“San Francisco is wonderful, but it is not as suitable for manufacturing,” he said.
With day-to-day operations at Blackbird passed to other hands, Luttwak has turned his attention to ramping up Lingrove. The newer company earlier this year leased 11,685 square feet of office and retail space at 100 Pelican Way in San Rafael.
This month, the company plans to start production on its proprietary 40-foot-long line for the Ekoa material in San Rafael.
“We're excited to grow in a place like Marin, where you can do light fabrication and be in this interesting market where people appreciate more sustainable solutions and where they appreciate the alternative to extracting materials like metals, plastics and even wood,” said Luttwak, CEO.
He likened the new Ekoa line to a printing press, as the plant fibers and bioplastic laminating material go in one end and the finished 4-foot-wide product with wood-like patterns streams out the other end. It can be used to replace Formica or veneer coverings, and it can take stains and water-based urethane finishes.
That continuous production is what separates the new Marin line from what was possible at the San Francisco site, Luttwak said. He estimates that the new plant will be able to scale up to millions of square feet of material annually.
“We’re looking to grow here and drive adoption of a more sustainable future,” Luttwak said.
Lingrove has been in talks with architects about specifying Ekoa for commercial tenant improvements and with producers of 4-foot-by-8-foot panels for walls and ceilings. But the Marin production scale-up was a key goal to make that feasible, Luttwak said. The semi-automated process now is run by 15 employees, and that workforce is envisioned to double in a year’s time.
Laura Duffy of JLL represented Lingrove in the San Rafael lease Feb. 24. Vesa Becam and Matt Storms of Keegan & Coppin Co. Inc. represented building owner SyWest Development.
Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Reach him at email@example.com or 707-521-4256.