“When I grew up, I was a little afraid of the water. Any sane person is,” Niemier, now 62, admits. It isn’t exactly the thing one would expect to hear when talking to the man who invented the modern-day sit-on-top kayak — and who has made it his life's mission to get people into said water. “One day I took a kayak out into the ocean and looked around and it was just an awesome kind of perspective. It changed my life because I got that view of being out there. I tried to overcome my fear by just doing it more and it became kind of a love affair.”
Merging Passion and Art Into a Business
That love affair sparked a desire to optimize kayaks to better experience the choppy surf of Malibu, California. From the very beginning, Niemier’s work was inspired by surfboards and how effectively they work on the water. In 1965, at the ripe age of 14, he designed his first kayak. A few years later Niemier took the next step and “got a large surfboard from a pawn shop and carved a place for my butt and heels with a fairly watertight hatch.” That was the beginning of his sport-altering work.
“Originally I did art and sculpture, so this was basically a kinetic sculpture that I could do a larger version of. I think the rigors of making something go through the water — if it works it's usually beautiful because it has to do certain things well and be very minimalist. It's like functional art," explains Niemier.
During the early 1970s, after designing kayaks for his own use, the locals on “Dog Beach” in Malibu began noticing. One curious beachgoer asked Niemier how much he'd be willing to sell his custom kayak for, so naturally, he bumped up the price to $150—three times his cost. Fairly quickly, word spread along that one-mile stretch of beach about a new fiberglass kayak that maneuvered through the waves better than traditional ones — and Niemier and his pal/partner Dan DeVault sold 25 kayaks. That's when the light bulb went off that they were on to something and the company Ocean Kayak was born.
With a brilliant product and some grassroots marketing, the company took off. Niemier later switched from fiberglass to polyethylene, enabling him to crank out a much higher volume of product, and then in 1997 — 20 years and thousands of kayaks later — Johnson Worldwide Associates bought Ocean Kayak for an undisclosed sum.
Nowadays, Niemier is still working on boat design, but his ambitions are much grander.
Keeping Trash Plastic Out of the Ocean
Niemier is currently focused on turning dirty plastic — which can be made up of various types of plastic and fillers that are not easily recycled — into inexpensive yet strong products that are cheap to build.
In order to make the recycling of these objects more practical for large-scale use — and keep the plastics out from junking up the earth, Niemier and his company have reinvented the existing process (called thermokinetic compounding). He calls his business Upcycled Plastics. “We want to bring it to the world. Our goal is to keep a billion tons of material out of the landfill in 10 years."
He thinks this is a perfect time to make Upcycled Plastics work. As Niemier explains, until recently it cost more to recycle and reuse plastic than it did to create virgin plastic. But now, “we can manufacture a part for less money using recycled plastic. It can be very profitable. We have to seize that opportunity." He believes the cost effectiveness of reusing these plastics can create opportunities for quality-of-life improvements such as creating low-cost toilets for people in need of basic sanitation.
Setting the Bar High
Talk to Niemier long enough, and you'll hear some very lofty goals and huge numbers being thrown around. "Putting a billion butts in boats" was one of his main ambitions by designing better and more accessible watercraft. While someone else might start out hoping to recycle a few thousand pounds of plastic, Niemier aims for a billion tons, or 2,000,000,000,000 pounds. These big numbers offer insight into his view on achieving goals.
"I once read that, with goals, when you say them, they automatically become 30 percent more possible to achieve. When you write it down once, it becomes 60 percent more possible and when you say it and try every day, it becomes 60 to 100 percent," explains Niemier.
Throughout our conversation, one thing became clear about Niemier: He understands the benefits of evolving, both personally and professionally — and this may be the reason he’s an innovator and will continue to come up with new, big ideas. "Right now I don't want to run a large corporation, I just want to start a movement. I like to start new trends. I'm focusing on water sports and how people interact with the water — and the recycled plastics."
Which sounds like a great plan for a man who has been innovating for almost 50 years.