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Axel Reese sits down with Thilo von Osterhausen, chief of R&D at GunSails, to learn more about his work and why innovation is his passion.

WORDS – Axel Reese // PHOTOS – Samuel Tomé, Pierre Bouras, Axel Reese

GunSails recently released an edition of their Seal wave sail, the RE-Seal, which is the first windsurfing sail made from completely recycled materials. “Our test team and team riders didn’t notice any differences in performance and even long-term tests with lots of hours of sunshine didn’t show any disadvantages in terms of longevity. Our team riders will use this recycled sail in the PWA World Cup”, enthuses Thilo von Osterhausen, chief of R&D at GunSails. The sail bag is also made entirely from recycled PET bottles. “We have been working on this for a few years and are happy and proud to be able to introduce it to the market”. The RE-Seal is 40 to 50 Euros more expensive than the version made of conventional materials. “This innovation comes from our belief in developing more sustainable products and bringing forth innovations”, says Jörg Müller, head of marketing. According to those responsible at GunSails, the plan is to make the entire sail collection “green” in the medium term.

“I’m just developing”, Thilo von Osterhausen said several times during our conversations. Thilo learned ‘development’ during his studies, the basis was “product development and the creation and modelling of innovations”, beams the industrial engineer, or more precisely, “Master of Technology and Management”, who completed his studies at the Technical University of Munich. He is quickly back in his world of ideas and inventions, always with the aim of also seeing economic value in connection with them, which should then actually be successful on the market. Behind this is always a process of change towards something ‘new’, that is what drives the 32-year-old. Products and processes are reconsidered, questioned and improved or fundamentally changed in order to achieve this.

Let’s go back in time five years. Thilo von Osterhausen, freshly graduated, joins the direct mail order company that was founded 35 years ago by his father Eberhard von Osterhausen, who died in a light aircraft plane accident almost 18 years ago. Since then, his mother Petra von Osterhausen has been the managing director of the company. Thilo as the lead developer has pushed processes and innovations in-house and is also responsible for the branding of GunSails. Thilo was a snowboard pro and is still a passionate surfer today, and with ‘Kanoa’ he has also founded his own surfboard brand. Surfboards have always been produced worldwide as boards with PU foam and a fiberglass laminate. And then the sensation, Thilo developed the Honey Roots Technology (HRT), which improves the longevity and sustainability of the boards many times over and won the ISPO ‘Brand New Selection’ in 2020 with his ‘HRT’ technology. “And yet somehow I have the feeling that I have to introduce myself to the windsurfing community first, so far I’ve only acted behind the scenes,” he beams. I sat down with Thilo to learn more about his background and innovations.

Axel: What was your impulse for developing a sail made from 100% recycled materials?

Thilo: In my composite development, I worked from day one with the most sustainable materials possible, such as organic resins, recycled foams and natural fibres. I succeeded in replacing conventional materials and even improving the properties in some cases. So it was pretty obvious to me that this approach can work for sails also. So I started my search and we started developing.

Axel: And eventually the entire sail range will be ‘green’?

Thilo: That is definitely the goal and after the outstanding feedback on this innovation, we will be able to follow this path with the necessary support and customer acceptance. As early as 2023, further models will be able to adorn themselves with the prefix “RE” – for recycled. However, in order to really design 100% sustainable sails, we will also take on the challenge of the circular economy. We are a company in transition and we want to encourage new thinking.

Axel: Tell us about the honey roots technology ‘HRT’?

Thilo: This is a new composite, but also surfboard construction, in which the laminate (the outer skin) is anchored in the core in the form of a three-dimensional structure (roots). This structure can be varied at will and the parameters, flex, torsion and damping adjusted accordingly. At the same time, the compressive strength of the laminate increases and the risk of delamination is significantly reduced. By changing its characteristics, HRT can adapt to the needs of almost any board. For example, you choose larger structures for softer flex and smaller structures for harder flex and higher compressive strength. A combination of these is also possible to create different flex zones or particularly resistant areas. Thanks to the improved properties, we can replace conventional materials such as carbon and glass with natural fibres or recycled materials. In addition to sustainable materials, the technology opens up the potential to make the production process itself more resource-efficient and gentle.

HRT avoids the problems associated with partial reinforcements such as carbon tapes, stringers or similar reinforcement methods. The partial, sometimes serious, material differences inevitably lead to stress peaks and consequently to micro-delaminations. The reason why any form of surfboard loses its properties and “liveliness” over time.

Axel: In your development you were able to draw on the know-how of the most renowned lightweight construction universities in Germany. How did that happen?

Thilo: I developed the technology on my own initiative and as part of my master’s thesis at the Technical University of Munich. As a result, I applied for a government-sponsored collaborative project to receive financial and scientific support. Thanks to the cooperation with two other universities, I was able to concentrate on pure material development, while they carried out numerous experiments and investigations with the materials. At the same time, thanks to the cooperation, I was always able to access the current state of research in fibre composites. Thanks to the collaboration, I now have a numerical and scientific basis for HRT and can already calculate certain material properties and determine them using a simulation.

Axel: Will that also come to market?

Thilo: Yes and please keep your fingers crossed. We have been ready for series production for a while and are ready to implement the HRT technology at our partner Sunova Surfboards in Thailand. PU boards for surfboard production, so far, are not healthy for the environment. The materials are toxic, non-recyclable and not even particularly durable. There is clearly a huge potential for improvement there. Accordingly, I am currently planning my own HRT production in Thailand and in the long term also in Europe.

Axel: Are windsurfing and wing foil boards also planned using this technology?

Thilo: Of course, we have already built the first wing boards in the technology and the implementation works effortlessly. Nevertheless, for 2022/2023, the focus of HRT will initially be on surfboards and our surfing brand KANOA. We are taking it step-by-step.

Axel: You are also responsible for the development of foils for windsurfing and wing foil, tell me more about that.  

Thilo: Yes, many threads come together here, in addition to our R&D in Tarifa around Renato Morlotti, we develop foils in close cooperation and support from Malte Fürstenberg, based in Hamburg. The aeronautical engineer and his network bring enormous simulation know-how to our project, so all profiles are scientifically optimized and simulated before the first test on the water takes place. Thanks to decades of wing development experience, our wings are incredibly efficient. It is beneficial that Malte Fürstenberg has been a windsurfer for many years and is now also an enthusiastic wing foiler. He puts the foils through their paces himself and together we have created a range of foils that we will present over the course of the year. Our development is always subject to the bionic approach. When shaping the wings, we let ourselves be inspired by nature and, depending on the later area of application of the foil, adopt specific wing properties and wing shapes. Ultimately, there are many thousands of years of evolution in every wing or fin using this approach, known as flight bionics, and it is common in the aerospace industry. For example, our modular HY-Foil Wing model series is based on the wings of the albatross and the fins of the dolphin. I know that sounds weird at first, but it’s actually the case. The foil definitely speaks for itself.

Axel: At GunSails your range of different products is very broad.

Thilo: Yes, that is our strategy. Watersports have changed extremely quickly and at all levels in recent years and we want to offer our customers the most comprehensive range possible. As a company, we can position ourselves more broadly and diversified, but also use an incredible number of synergies at the same time. Whether in development, sourcing, marketing or logistics. What we have learned in windsurfing we can apply to other areas of watersports. It is a huge privilege to be able to build on this basis and lead GunSails and all related categories into the future. I personally have a lot of fun questioning existing products and finding new innovative solutions and products. But here too, we work step by step and within the scope of our possibilities. We are a family-run company and do not have a million-euro debt-financed development budget. Continuous and healthy growth is the right way for us.

Axel: On that point, you started with a wing last year.

Thilo: Both forgiving and performant, the Hy-Wing has resonated with buyers and magazines alike. We will now introduce the HY-Wing V2 and an even more reactive and sophisticated model, the HY-Wing Omega. There are also additional front wings for the HY-Foil Wing in sizes 1000, 1300 and 2000. In addition, there is a matching hard board in four sizes and an inflatable wing board collection.

Axel: You live and work partly at the French Atlantic coast. Is that due to your passion, surfing?

Thilo: Exactly, I grew up with all the common watersports, including surfing, and they are an essential part of my life. This variety of boardsports also made it possible for me to venture into the snowboard freestyle discipline. Then last year I moved our Kanoa R&D centre to the Basque Country. Here the focus is clearly on composite R&D, but from there I can push all windsurfing and wingsurfing topics and test all our products myself. The location is therefore not only an added value for our company, but also for me personally.

Axel: On the one hand you are a qualified ‘developer’ who learned it from scratch and on the other hand you are the ‘chief of strategy’ in strategic marketing at GunSails.

Thilo: Yes, I’m not only involved in development, I also take care of the vision and the brand itself. Starting with the logo change and rebranding a few years ago, and ending with our sustainability road map today. But I still wouldn’t describe myself as a chief of strategy. The Gunsails strategy only works thanks to an incredibly committed team of exciting characters who put at least as much passion and commitment into this company as I do. Something that is not taken for granted, a big thank you to our whole team at this point!

Axel: Your mother Petra von Osterhausen took over the management of the company from one day to the next 18 years ago.

Thilo: Yes, it really has to be emphasized that my mother took over the management practically ‘overnight’ after Eberhard’s fatal accident. Despite the adverse circumstances, she was at the company the very next day and assured the team that things would continue. A brilliant achievement! As a law graduate, she did it fantastically, and with a combination of logic, intuition and a good knowledge of human nature, and made Gunsails the solid company it is today. In close cooperation with Jörg Müller and Rainer Sprick, of course. I was 15 at the time and, after graduating from high school, I went on to study and start my snowboarding career. Despite that, it was always clear to me that my path would lead back to Gunsails, so I’ve always had a good relationship with our staff and producers.

Even if working together in the family is not always easy these days (laughs), my mother and I always agree on overriding and important issues. She gave me a lot of support in my development projects and in changing the brand and had the same vision in mind. I took many approaches from her and learned something in many places.

It is therefore a huge privilege for me today to be able to build on this basis and to realize our common vision of the company. The past turbulent 35 years have really allowed the whole team to grow together into a small family. We don’t call it “#jointhefamily” for nothing. We pursue our activities out of conviction and love for the sports we are involved with, profits or returns are not in the foreground. We love watersports and enjoy offering our customers high quality and innovative products at fair prices. No more and no less! With all the innovations, it is incredibly important to me that we remain what we have always been at the core of the company.


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