In Columbia Sportwear’s unassuming offices off of NW Science Park Drive, Michael “Woody” Blackford pulls on mismatched ski gloves. “OK, check this out,” he says, plunging both hands into a tank of water. Both gloves have allegedly waterproof membranes. But the glove protected by a competitor’s waterproofing soaks through. The glove with the new membrane developed by Blackford does not.
Blackford’s eyes gleam with the enthusiasm of a kid with a new high-tech toy—and in many ways, that’s what he is. The 43-year-old native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, started tinkering with clothes as a kid, after a car (and his own impeded vision) knocked him off his bike. “I had a jacket with a fur-collar hood, and I couldn’t see when I turned my head,” he says. He fashioned an internal elastic band that cinched the hood to his skull and made it mobile.
Blackford joined Columbia in 2005. This summer, the company named him director of the nine-person team responsible for developing its new technology and materials. He is also the company’s vice president of global innovation, sitting just a few steps down the corporate hierarchy from iconic founder Gert Boyle and her son Tim, the CEO.
The Canadian occupies a key role as Columbia’s overall strategy ventures beyond its traditional winter-centric focus to more varied gear. The company says it wants to address all outdoorsy challenges, not just cold, and that the effort goes back to 2008. Last year’s globally warm winter, after which the company announced revenue dips and layoffs, perhaps underscores the need.
“THE IDEA ITSELF IS PROBABLY 10 PERCENT. THE REST IS THE DETAILS AND EXECUTION.”—WOODY BLACKFORD
Columbia is hardly abandoning the slopes: the company’s Omni-Heat Electric line of battery-heated winter products debuted three years ago, with one men’s jacket retailing for $1,200. But Blackford’s team is developing products like the new Omni-Freeze Zero, a body-cooling fabric that will hit the market this coming spring. (Popular Science gave the new system lavish coverage in August.)
This born inventor—Blackford’s name has appeared on dozens of patents, for everything from snag-resistant zippers to a patterned metallic clothing lining that reflects body heat—finds his real inspiration outdoors.He says Portland reminds him quite a bit of his Atlantic Coast homeland: both exemplify why he believes he’ll never be out of work. “We’re the only animal that wears clothing,” Blackford says. “After 90,000 years, it’s still not perfect. Think of all the ways to be