Sun Valley, Idaho, is known first and foremost as a ski resort. At the same time, Sun Valley is also an innovative hub, churning out entrepreneurs and products for many years, including the country’s first chair lift and heli-ski operation. Many have been raised in these mountains or flocked to them and found themselves inspired by the immersion in nature.
Household brand names Smith Optics and Scott USA started in Sun Valley, just like so many other brands today, working to become as big as their forebearers. While there are so many innovators coming out of Sun Valley to name in one article, here are seven to be on the watch for!
Unleashing Creativity in the Mountains: Meet Sun Valley’s Innovative Brands
Party Animal Vodka
Like any college student sitting in a mind-numbing lecture, Kate Cullen found herself daydreaming about the upcoming weekend and what she would drink. It was 2011, and, as a vodka fan, Cullen realized that the vodkas on the market at that time were lacking in any kind of branding or storytelling. She decided to create a vodka herself that would have both.
The first batch of Party Animal Vodka was launched out of Sun Valley, her and boyfriend/co-founder Josh Hanson’s new home, in 2018. The handcrafted vodka is made from locally sourced Idaho russet potatoes and distilled in Rigby, Idaho. Ten percent of profits go to local organizations that support animals. The vodka is available in Idaho, Wyoming, and California, and a few select online retailers, but Hanson and Cullen’s goal is to get the vodka into all 50 states.
It wasn’t until being asked to do his first hempcrete building job that Hempitecture CEO and founder Matthew Mead ever heard of Sun Valley, Idaho, his now-home and base of operations for his burgeoning company. Hempitecture started as part of Mead’s college senior thesis on sustainable building methods. When he learned that the UK and France used hempcrete, a construction material made from hemp, he realized that the US had a tappable market for the same thing.
After entering business competitions and trying to get Hempitecture off the ground, a Sun Valley local reached out to Mead about building a hempcrete project in the area. It was to be Hempitecture’s first job and the start of the company. High school friend Tommy Gibbons saw his friend’s progress with the company and left the world of San Francisco startups to come on board as COO and co-founder.
Since then, the company has worked with numerous companies, architects, and projects with their sustainable, plant fiber–based insulation products grown and manufactured in the US. Mead was also named one of Forbes 30 under 30 in 2020.
Biking in all its forms is a major draw of the Sun Valley area, whether you’re getting on the hundreds of miles of single-track on your mountain bike or doing some road racing. Local mountain biker Mike Herlinger was finishing up a hard ride when he realized he was supposed to be meeting friends in town for a brew soon. He had to decide: go home and change before meeting them or show up in his admittedly dorky Lycra biking kit? He wished there was more stylish bike gear out there that one could wear from the trail to the tavern.
Thus, Club Ride was born in 2008, creating stylish, technical cycling gear designed with a bike perspective but perfect for anyone who wants to get outside and then hit the town.
For women in the outdoor space, there’s always room for improvement in terms of gear and clothing. In an industry where women’s products are often made by taking men’s gear and “shrinking and pinking it,” Wild Rye found an audience desperate for stylish, technical outdoor apparel for women-identifying individuals of all sizes, ages, and skill levels.
CEO and founder Cassie Abel founded Wild Rye in 2015 after spending a decade in the outdoor industry and wanting to give women better options. The company’s apparel spans from biking gear to layers for camping and winter excursions to fun lifestyle pieces like overalls and tees.
Like so many others on this list, necessity was the mother of invention for First Lite. Founders Kenton Carruth and Scott Robinson moved to Ketchum in the mid-’90s to work in the winter sports industry. The hunting enthusiasts found there were few options clothing-wise for chilly fall Idaho mornings or days where the weather fluctuated.
They discovered that Merino Wool was ideal for the area’s temps and remained odor-free. They started printing Merino Wool in camouflage and founded First Lite in 2007. The company was acquired by media company MeatEater in 2018 and has only grown since then, expanding its product line, conservation efforts, and opening a flagship store in Hailey, Idaho (located 12 miles south of Sun Valley).
If you own a truck or have ever driven one, you know the pain of having items rolling around in the bed, clanging against the sides, or having to hop into the bed yourself to retrieve something that has lodged itself all the way in the back. DECKED has the solution in the form of its flagship Drawer System.
Founded in 2014 by co-founders Jake Peters and Lance Meller, DECKED began as an idea born of a DIY project. Meller originally crafted his own truck bed organizer for sleeping and transporting the snowboards he was a rep for. Meller had planned to sell patterns along with materials lists, but once Peters came on board, the duo decided to productize, becoming the DECKED Drawer System. Now with products distributed in 27 countries and employing 150 people nationally, DECKED is the purveyor of a two-drawer system to organize your truck bed and also acquired the company CargoGlide, a product that allows the entire bed of your truck to pull out. The injection-molded products are made of recycled materials at a production facility in Defiance, Ohio (though the company is headquartered in Sun Valley).
What started as a side hustle and hobby for founder Ron Arnold quickly grew into a company with surging demand. Arnold began importing late-’90s Mitsubishi Delicas from Japan in 2017, a Japanese adventure vehicle he had fallen in love with while traveling in one in New Zealand. Coming from a lineage of mechanics, including a grandfather who was a master mechanic for CAT, Arnold was initially importing, refurbishing, and selling the vehicles one at a time by himself.
When local friend Gardner Cord, with his own lineage of mechanics (his great-grandfather invented the “Cord Front Wheel Drive Automobile” and his grandfather won the first world championships for the Toyota Factory Racing Team) got on board, the two came up with the premise for Nomadic Vans, which opened in 2019. The company is the only one in the United States specializing only in the import, refurbishing, and sale of Delicas. As demand for off-the-grid and adventuring vehicles has surged post-Covid, Nomadic’s sales have also skyrocketed, as Nomadic is one of the few places that acquire and maintain these 25-year-old vehicles.
Sun Valley, Idaho, is not just a renowned ski resort but also a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurship. Over the years, this mountainous region has nurtured and inspired countless individuals, giving rise to a vibrant community of innovators and trailblazers. While it’s impossible to cover all the remarkable talents emerging from Sun Valley in a single article, I’ve highlighted seven exceptional brands that deserve attention. If you’re interested in checking any of these businesses out, click on their links below:
Hayden Seder is a freelance writer based in her hometown of Ketchum, Idaho. In the 10+ years she’s been a writer, her work has been published in publications including Backpacker, Climbing, Sun Valley Magazine, Boise Weekly, Idaho Press, and more. When not putting pen to paper, Hayden loves rock climbing, mountain biking, reading, and camping with her rescue pitbull Otis.