Denver, Colorado

Co-founder Kevin Brown is reinventing chalk for rock climbers and other athletes.

“We’ve sort of redefined or created this premium chalk market,” says Brown. “All of our chalk is the same base compound, which is a little over 99 percent magnesium carbonate.”

From that base, Friction Labs offers three versions of its dry chalk: Unicorn Dust (fine), Gorilla Grip (chunky) and Bam Bam (super chunky). The difference is the ratio of powder to chunks in their chalk.

Photos Jonathan Castner

Brown explains that there are some other things in it, but essentially it’s pharmaceutical-grade. “If you’ve eaten a white pill before, you’ve likely eaten the same thing that our chalk is made out of,” he quips. “We’ve actually had our chalk brewed into beer four times now with Wynkoop Brewery in downtown Denver.”

Brown launched the company with co-founder Keah Kalantari after using some inferior climbing chalk. “I went to REI to buy the chalk that I normally got, it was sold out, so I bought some other stuff because the guy said that it’s all the same stuff. And when I got out to my project, it was just like garbage — like I had no grip,” he says. “I was frustrated because the conditions were good.”

He asked his geologist wife where the chalk came from and a friend of hers used an X-ray fluorescence lab to better understand chalk manufacturing. “I went and bought every brand of chalk that I possibly could at REI at that time — I think there were 12 different ones and we tested all — and none of them came back at more than 50 percent magnesium carbonate,” Brown says. “There was a whole bunch of fillers, nothing toxic, but just stuff that didn’t help your grip.”

That was the genesis of Friction Labs. “Long story short, I started messing around with the different grades and particle size and pH and developed chalk that I thought was way better,” says Brown. “We’re in like almost 3,000 doors in the U.S. and 27 countries around the world.”

Friction Labs sources its raw chalk from a mine in Europe and manufactures its products in Denver. “We’re the only manufacturer in the U.S., so almost everyone but us is private labeling stuff that comes out of China or Taiwan,” says Brown.

The manufacturing process aims for “a particle-size spectrum” to make the different varieties, says Brown. “You need different sizes of the chalk particles,” he explains. “When it’s all the same size and then it kind of ends up like a dry lubricant. We have a process that we developed where we take the powder, we add a solution to it, everything evaporates off, and that creates the chunks of the chalk that we have and then we mix the chunks with the powder in a certain ratio to get our three different blends.”

According to Brown, Friction Labs was the first to offer both an alcohol-free liquid chalk as well as a sanitizing version. “I think the big thing that differentiates our liquid chalks is what’s not in them. We don’t have a whole bunch of stabilizers and preservatives. We don’t have any rosin.”

The company also offers two versions of its Secret Stuff. “Our Secret Stuff Hygienic we developed around COVID,” says Brown. “One of our customers actually is a PhD and was running a lab that was testing COVID. He tested our product on COVID and showed that it actually outperformed a hand sanitizer at killing SARS COVID and pathogenic bacteria.”

Friction Labs has also not ventured into colored chalks, which some climbing areas require. “The problem with colored chalks is that most of the colored pigments are oil-based,” says Brown. “That’s going to interfere with the performance of a chalk.”

Annual growth has ranged from 10 to 20 percent, and Brown anticipates similar growth in 2022 and beyond as the employee count doubles to 30 to 40 people.

“We’ve been fortunate that every year we’ve been in business we’ve been able to grow. Part of that has been the growth of the climbing industry, and a lot of that has been sort of moving beyond the climbing industry as well,” Brown says.

“We look at what a company like Nike did for feet. Before Nike, a high-performance shoe was a Chuck Taylor, which is a fine shoe, but it’s not a high-performance shoe,” he adds. “Nike developed running shoes, and then they went after all these other places. They helped feet perform at such a higher level. And we see the same opportunity for hands.”

Challenges: “I think one of the real challenges is keeping up with the growth in minimum wage and being competitive for talent as we grow our production team,” Brown says. “The cost of living in Denver has gone up significantly. We really strive to pay people a livable wage and balance that with running a profitable company.”

Opportunities: “We’re seeing a lot of opportunity outside of climbing,” says Brown, citing tennis, pickleball, and baseball as potential markets. “We never really thought or even knew how to go after that, they are just sort of organically finding us and coming to us and creating more opportunities.”

As it moves to recyclable packaging, the company is releasing new products in 2023. “We have a skin recovery cream that’s going to be coming out and we have our version of a chalk block that’s gonna be coming out in early 2023,” says Brown.

Needs: “We’re in the process of searching for a bigger space. That’s been increasingly challenging because there’s more space out by the airport or way down south. But no one on our team wants to drive that far for work,” Brown says. “Finding more talented people is another. We will be expanding our marketing team and marketing efforts and expanding our production team.”