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A friend of Brint Markle had a lucky escape when the pair were skiing in 2010, when he narrowly avoided being dragged over a cliff by an avalanche.
The shocking experience was a wake-up call for Mr Markle. The off-piste skiing enthusiast arrived at MIT Sloan School of Management in autumn 2012 for the start of his MBA, eager to start a business and also thinking about how to solve the problem of avalanche forecasting.
The result was a product and service company, AvaTech, which has created the first device for measuring the risk of snow slides, and a cloud computing platform for sharing real-time data about the risks from the mountainside.
Avalanche deaths are an increasing risk worldwide. In the US alone dozens of people are killed in a single winter season, up from single-digit numbers in the 1970s. The rise in fatalities is partly a result of the growing demand for risky sports but is also due to easier access to off-piste terrain. In the past, avalanche technology has been developed only to locate people buried once a snow slide has occurred. AvaTech looked at creating a more proactive solution, allowing skiing and mountaineering professionals to share information to increase knowledge across the industry.
Mr Markle toyed with the idea of a product based on radar and spoke to engineers at the Massachusetts-based Draper Laboratory for a brainstorming session. He also signed up for the product design and development class, which connects MIT Sloan students with students from MIT engineering and the Rhode Island School of Design. The result was AvaTech, a technology business that has developed a handheld device for gauging the risk of avalanches, as well as developing a cloud computing platform, called AvaNet, to share the data with other skiers.
How the product was developed
Mr Markle and his co-founders were accepted on to the MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator, which provides money, workspace, a board of advisers and mentoring support to start-ups created by the university’s students. The team subsequently raised $575,000 in a seed funding round. Mr Markle also went to the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, where he worked with mentors and professors who had started companies of their own.
“I love the process of being involved in starting something new and I love new technology,” Mr Markle says. “It was also very fulfilling to be involved in something that we knew could help save lives.”
Last year, 25 AvaTech prototypes were sent to testers in the US, Canada, Norway, Iceland, Greenland and Switzerland. The equipment’s technical accuracy, design and durability were tested by ski resorts, avalanche education providers and forecast centres, guiding companies, universities, heli-ski operations, and military special forces. The feedback enabled AvaTech to accelerate the development of its first commercial product, the SP1, a portable web-connected penetrometer that measures snow structure and other critical snowpack information.
AvaTech will start shipping the SP1 to customers in late December. Measurements taken by these devices can be synchronised automatically with AvaNet via bluetooth and a smartphone application, creating what AvaTech’s team believes will be the first crowd-sourced database of snow conditions from avalanche-prone areas.
SP1 is no replacement for sound judgment and experience, adds Mr Markle. The avalanche problem is incredibly complex, he says, and there are other factors that their technology cannot measure such as wind, temperature and on-the-ground conditions.
“It’s simply a tool that helps professionals gather snowpack information more quickly and objectively, and then share that data in real-time with the community,” he says. “It’s up to the user to integrate this information with other . . . observations to best inform their decisions.”