Ski innovations

In Innsbruck, Koch alpin, the manufacturer of ski skins, has the "worldwide hotspot of ski touring" at its doorstep. The American climbing, skiing and alpine sports expert, Black Diamond, moved its "European hotspot" to Tirol because it was attracted to the environment where companies specialised in skiing, alpine sports and action sports were based. A sector that is full of innovative young talent - Powunity brings the digital era to the pistes, XQZT has returned to the roots of ski production.

At the beginning of the 80s, Hermann Kapferer from Tirol met Jake Burton in the USA. The haulier was very enthusiastic about Burton's snowboards. He took the new products to Innsbruck and started importing this winter sports equipment that at that time was still unusual in the Alpine region – the rest is European "Burton" history. The US snowboard corporation's headquarters in the "Old World" have been in Tirol ever since.

Practically 30 years later, Burton is no longer the only sporty American in Innsbruck. After freeskiing specialists Armada moved to Innsbruck in 2012, Black Diamond, the climbing, skiing and alpine sports expert, also moved its European headquarters from Switzerland to the Tirolean capital at the beginning of 2016. "Innsbruck is an internationally renowned destination for alpine sports as well as a lively university town and provides our employees with first-class climbing areas and access to the back country. Innsbruck also provides an attractive environment of various alpine sports and action sports brands whose offices are located in the region," Tim Bantle, managing director of Black Diamond Europe, explains why they crossed the border from Switzerland to Austria. 

Winter sports in Austria, especially in Tirol, have experienced significant changes since the beginning of the 20th century and made them, too. The first ski club was founded in St. Christoph am Arlberg in 1901, the first ski school in Austria in St. Anton in 1920. Active "style icons" in Tirol such as Hannes Schneider, Anton Seelos or Stefan Kruckenhauser influenced skiing styles on the pistes for decades. Around 1900, the occasional ski tourist would stray to Kitzbühel, in the winter of 2014/15 the Gamsstadt region had 114,685 arrivals. 33,000 employees at present work in the tourist industry in Tirol, add to that companies whose main business is winter sports – or will be. For example, the start-up Powunity.

Stefan Sinnegger, Christian Strassl and Grega Gostinča have had their NeverLose device on the market since December 2015. Weighing only 35 grammes, it is screwed onto the ski and connected to a smart phone via Bluethooth. Should the ski get lost, NeverLose

sounds the alarm and you no longer have to spend a long time digging in the snow, often to no avail.

Sinnegger and Strassl had known each other for just one day when they spent an entire day together on a glacier in June 2014, skiing and filming. They had plenty of time to talk, too. They talked about start-ups and the problem enthusiastic deep-snow skiers often encounter: how do I find my buried ski after a fall? The conversation turned into a cooperation between Innsbruck and Berlin at first where Sinnegger was an intern at a start-up, later between the Swedish town of Lund where Sinnegger completed his Entrepreneurship degree. They came up with the Bluetooth idea quite quickly. "We ordered the first parts on the Internet," Sinnegger remembers. "We packed them into a watertight box, buried them in the snow and then tested them," Strassl adds. The principle worked, especially when Sinnegger had the idea to pep up the Bluetooth signal to a sound pressure level of 96 decibels. They also resolved issues such as watertightness, battery drain and – low – temperatures. The prototype was showcased at ISPO 2015. Christian Strassl, "The feedback was huge."

The trio knew they wanted to carry on, but also knew that they couldn't do it alone. They found an investor in Stasto KG from Innsbruck, two Tirolean companies for production in the thermoplastic specialists Pließnig in Fulpmes and Exceet Electronics in Ebbs, one crowdfunding campaign brought about 40,000 dollars to their budget, they created a marketing concept. In the summer of 2015 they went to New Zealand to test it, at a distance of ten metres to a ski buried 20 to 30 centimetres deep. "80 per cent of the time it is easier and quicker to find the ski," Sinegger explains the benefit of using NeverLose. The young entrepreneurs "injected" a second function into the device. A built-in motion sensor sets off an alarm when the ski, e.g. in front of the ski hut, is being moved. "Nothing happens when the ski falls down or is put to one side," Strassl says reassuringly. The loud theft protection first goes off when the ski "wanders" two or three metres.

An investment of 99 euros, which pays off, and not only if you have a sophisticated board from XQZT. Just like Strassl and Sinnegger, Maria Wibmer and Daniel Neururer are also enthusiastic skiers. So enthusiastic that the skis they found in the shops just didn't hit the mark and they wanted to build their own. They found information on the Internet on how to build them, in Tirol itself the artisanal skills for making skis had recently become obsolete. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were many carpenters and wheel makers at first who - mainly from Eschenholz – made skis, such as Landwagnerei Kneissl at Kufstein.

In 1919, Franz Kneissl senior manufactured the first skis, from the 1950s through to the 1990s the company made a few Kneissl stars run hot, but it also broke a few economic stars. "In Austria, the ski companies – maybe also because of tourism – got very large very quickly. In America, however, there are many small ski manufacturers," Neururer states. The two also sought expertise from over there, they started making skis in Ötztal-Bahnhof in one of the older factories. "The first ski was not good, but ridable," Wibmer says laughing. "It then took two, three years until we were truly satisfied," Neururer says, "we sold the first skis in autumn 2014."

Regionality was important to them from the word go. They get their timber from the carpenter next door, whereby "we tested everything, sycamore, ash, miscellanies. But then we ended up with bamboo." Water-repellent, light, elastic yet still robust, ideal for the XQZT ski. Not very regional, Wibmer admits, but bamboo grows back quickly. They leave nothing to chance, they test the best composition of the wood at the Technical Testing and Research Laboratory at the University of Innsbruck. The edges and the ski bases come from two real professionals and world leaders: Metall Deutsch in Innsbruck and Isosport in Hall. "They helped us a lot, even though the amounts we need are peanuts for them." Peanuts, as Wibmer and Neururer build skis alongside their full-time jobs as an architect and university economist. Their company XQZT is meant to remain a small ski manufacturer so that they can continue to build special custom-made skis to order as well as design them. Although they now also offer skis off the – small – peg. "Some customers are overwhelmed when they have to decide everything," Wibmer explains. The ready-made skis will be available this summer. The first sports shop – in St. Anton – that started selling XQZT skis is to be followed by a second one this coming winter.

Koch alpin is no novice in the sports industry. The Tirolean family-run company is one of the leading manufacturers of climbing skins. The manufacturing location in Mils is about ten kilometres from Innsbruck, "the worldwide hotspot of ski touring" according to Werner Koch. When his father founded the company in 1978, ski touring was a fringe sport for traditionalists and climbing enthusiasts. Today, the Alpine federation estimates that there are 500,000 ski tourers in Austria, about 30,000 around Innsbruck who regularly stick skins on to their skis.

The basis of climbing aids has not changed that much. The skins that once came from seals don't exist anymore, they now come from the Angora goat in South Africa. "Mohair is state-of-the-art, we tested synthetic fibres but 

they weren't good enough," Koch explains. The natural hair is specially woven, it absorbs hardly any moisture and stays soft and smooth even at low temperatures.

A lot has been done on attachment systems for skins and skis. Wider skis need wider skins. Some people find it difficult to pull off the attached, i.e. glued, skin and need to apply a lot of force. Because of the shape of the carving skis, the skins cannot be cut straight, this in turn makes it more difficult to attach them, which in turn increases the risk of glue on the edge of the skins drying out. Thirdly, the requirement to stick well, at low as well as winterly high temperatures alike. "We started looking for a stable adhesive for the ski base that is insensitive to temperature and also easy to detach," Koch remembers. Uncharted territory also for the adhesive specialists Koch alpin worked with.

The solution was a thin layer of glue where the glue properties differ from one side to the other – a strong bond between the glue and the back of the skin and an easy-to-detach bond to the ski base. Werner Koch, "It took five, six years of lab and field work until it was ready for the market." They took ski touring enthusiasts from Tirol for the ultimate final test. They looked for voluntary testers in the newspaper, the study participants – equipped with a free skin – were split quasi-scientifically, ranging from the 30-year old competitive walker to professional mountain guides through to the 70-year old skier. The innovative adhesive impressed the testers and now forms the basis for Koch alpin’s own brand, contour, as well as for skins produced in Mils by Atomic, Black Crows or Ski Trab.

Werner Koch glues skins to his skis as often as he can. He wanted to let his children experience ski touring so he developed "contour startUp" with them. In just a few simple steps, this ski touring adaptor weighing just under 800 grammes can be adjusted to the desired sole length and inserted into the alpine binding. For children, alpine skiing turns into ski touring, and the ski touring community grows by one small member.

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