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ROKA’s Austin-Built Sunglasses Advance Eyewear Technology

ROKA’s Austin-Built Sunglasses Advance Eyewear Technology

How a passion project founded by two former Stanford swimmers revolutionized the athletic gear industry

By Liz Harroun
Photos by Caleb Kerr

These days in Austin, if you find yourself at a local bike race, you’ll see many of the participants sporting ROKA sunglasses. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a cycling team that doesn’t wear ROKA. It’s hard to believe that ROKA began as a hobby project — not to revolutionize the eyewear industry — to create a better wetsuit for personal use.

Co-founders Rob Canales and Kurt Spenser, both former collegiate swimmers at Stanford, had recently completed their first Ironman triathlon in 2010. They came away both loving this new form of competition and frustrated by the gear available at the time. As swimmers, the wetsuit was their biggest pain point, as the ones available slowed them down in the water and were uncomfortable. Canales and Spenser started cutting up and then prototyping new suits, using a sewing machine from Canales’ grandmother. Then newly addicted to triathlons, they’d tested each new model in the constant races for which they were signing up.

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In 2014, they released their first wetsuit, which reduced shoulder fatigue and focused on buoyancy in the legs rather than the chest. And so, ROKA was born.

“At our core, ROKA is about helping people unlock their potential,” Canales says. “Because many of us were athletes in past lives and continue to be active, we have a tremendous amount of empathy for our customers’ needs. We understand that when you invest in an epic challenge to see what you’re capable of, your gear simply cannot let you down. Not only does it need to perform, but also it needs to get out of the way.”

Photo by Mike Borchard

In 2016, ROKA was ready to expand beyond wetsuits. Inspired by brand ambassador and professional athlete Jesse Thomas, who had recently won a triathlon in gas station aviators, they set out to create something better than what was out there. With minimal movement, lightweight, and insane optics, ROKA did just that with their sunglasses launch. Since then, their eyeglasses business has exploded, with dozens of styles, including prescription and blue-blocking glasses.

Technical gear for athletes has historically been pretty dorky. Even the most premium companies often make products that, while they usually work, aren’t something you look forward to sporting (especially outside of your workout). ROKA is changing that. With a trifecta of style, functionality, and science, ROKA is finally making technical gear sexy.

And, even beyond functionality and style, ROKA’s products are backed by science. For years now, ROKA has used research and data to make their products more effective. For example, their proprietary blue-blocking lenses isolate and block certain frequencies of light from screens that other glasses out there miss. Because they measure this, you can rest assured (and rest better), knowing that less harmful artificial light is reaching your eyes and therefore suppressing melatonin when you’re trying to unwind at night.

Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and professor at Stanford, has recently become the scientific advisor for the company. Huberman, who specializes in ophthalmology, shares a passion for both vision and human health. This investment in such a prominent scientist in this space shows that ROKA is going all in on their commitment to building the best eyewear technology.

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Beyond that, their obsession with delivering the best products and customer service has even led them to bringing some of their manufacturing in-house, to Austin, a decision that many companies avoid because of cost concerns.

“In the last year, we decided to build an optical lab in our headquarters so we could cut our own sunglasses and prescription lenses and do our own frame assemblies,” Canales says. “Taking control of this part of the process has allowed us to turn around orders for our customers much faster than before and with much better quality control. Doing this out of our headquarters in Austin provides the manufacturing team with a direct connection to our customer experience and operations teams, which in turn allows us to be more nimble and responsive to our customers. So far it’s gone really well, and we look forward to making additional investments in our supply chain as we continue to grow.”

While ROKA roots are getting even deeper in Austin, they are also gaining worldwide recognition.

“In doing this now for almost ten years and partnering with countless world champions and Olympians across numerous sports and product categories,” Canales says, “we’ve developed many patented and proprietary technologies that really do make our products better.”

Let’s be honest, we also want to look good while we’re logging countless miles on the bike or track or at the pool. So the fact that ROKA is making gear (in Austin!) that looks good, feels good and works better is a win-win-win.

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Read More From the Style Issue | September 2022