Martin Kawalski was watching the Netflix show Stranger Things in his apartment in Bern, Switzerland, last winter when his phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number, but he picked up anyway. On the other end was Bode Miller, the alpine skier with an Olympic gold and two World Cup championships.
“I was like, oh shit, yeah, sure. I’ll pause my show.” he joked.
Kawalski, a neuroscience physician, had been developing sensors to track ski analytics for about five years. The company he co-founded with Peter Lukasik, Snowcookie Sports, has raised about $3 million from Swiss investors Lucian Wagner, Privilege Ventures and MICA Ventures, all who are skiers themselves, Kawalski said. It was also a finalist in the 2014 Intel Make It Wearable Challenge.
At the time, he was pitching the sensors to various people, including the U.S. Ski Team. Miller heard his pitch and had an idea to improve the technology: an app that allows skiers to track their own progress with the data from the sensors.
“When can you be in LA?” Miller asked Kawalski on the phone. Within days, Kawalski hopped on a plane (it was a pre-pandemic time) and met Miller. They talked for two days straight, he said.
Now, almost one year after those initial discussions, Miller has joined the team as what Kawalski calls a late-stage co-founder. His app, coined SKEO, has launched for iOS and Android. Kawalski declined to say how much each founder owns of the company, but noted “Bode is a very material owner.”
The launch of the app marks the Snowcookie sensors’ first real break on the market after years of development. As of March 20, skiers can purchase the three Snowcookie sensors for $449 — one for each ski and one that sits on the chest — and connect them to the free app. Using GPS, the software tells its user factors such as speed, incline, and stamina. It also shows their body movements via a 3D graphic of a skier.
The ski industry is in decline. For the last several years, ski slopes have seen fewer people. U.S. skiers have fallen from 60.5 million during the 2010-2011 season, its record high, to 50.1 million during the 2019-2020 season, according to National Ski Areas Association data. The pandemic created another hit to the industry– in many places in Europe ski slopes were closed all together. Not only is it an expensive sport, but it’s one that most people don’t get into unless they have family or friends already involved.
SKEO’s technology aims to create more accessibility in the sport by allowing users to identify problem spots on their own and rank themselves through a more uniform skill meter.
Inspiration for Snowcookie
The idea for the ski sensors stemmed from an entirely different project. While Kawalski was earning his PhD, he was attempting to find a way to diagnose sleep apnea using a smartphone, he said. Part of the data collection included tracking his patients’ sleeping position using sensors.
Kawalski, who is an avid recreational skier, wondered if he could mesh his two passions and approach the sport from a medical angle. His first thought was to track skier’s exhaustion levels with the sensors. But, of course, that’s not where the final product went — he ended up being inspired by the sensors to help skiers track their movements in order to improve their form.
It’s difficult to tell your flaws without a coach or a video camera, Kawalski said. And he quickly realized why. Unlike similar sport tracking software for say, running — which can trace simple consistent metrics such as feet hitting the ground or cadence — skiing is not so simple to track.
“I just love the sport,” he said. “Once I realized it might be worth pursuing and actually entered accelerators and startup incubators, I realized there’s actually little competition because it’s really hard to build sensors that work in that environment.”
In order to train the technology, Kawalski strapped up to a dozen sensors on his ski instructor, Chris Machaj, and had him ski down the slope he had unlimited access to. His team of about 10 set up GoPros and other lenses to film his movements, and then later synched the two on software they developed. The algorithm was created by manually matching up the sensor movements with the video footage. It’s not perfect, Kawalski said, and the team has plans to continue improving it.
There are other products geared at putting stats in skiers’ hands that have entered the market. Take the Hawx Ultra Connected Ski Boot from the Austria-based ski equipment manufacturer Atomic, which has sensors that track movement and help coach its users through a mobile app, or Slopes, an app that tracks analytics down the slopes and info on ski conditions.
SKEO Puts The Tech In Skiers Hands
Before Miller joined and SKEO was paired with the Snowcookie sensors, the previous app looked like an Excel spreadsheet, Kawalski said.“I really hope you won’t download that because it was an app designed by engineers, for engineers,” Kawalski jokes.
Beyond accessibility, the SKEO app also offers a Universal Alpine Ranking, which tracks skiers’ progress and scores it against core skills. It’s a way to standardize skill; Kawalski compares it to a tennis ranking or a golf handicap. The app’s ranking system is one of the first ways to see how you stack up compared to other skiers in a recreational setting.
Most amateur skiers tend to judge their skill based on the style of the slope (for instance, a Black Diamond is considered more difficult than a Bunny Slope), Kawalski explains. But going down what’s considered the most difficult slope on the clearest day on one mountain can’t always compare to going down a challenging slope somewhere else in bad weather. The ranking system eliminates this by computing skill based on factors such as speed and incline.
Over the next few months, Kawalski plans to send his team to Mount Hood in Oregon to keep developing the app and sensors, since many resorts in Europe continue to be closed as a result of the pandemic. He also plans to continue to market the app and sensor combo, since the combined technology launched weeks before the ski season ends in April.
“I’ll just focus on development for next five months, anticipating that everyone’s going to be so hungry for outdoor activities and skiing once we finally get this COVID thing out of everywhere,” Kawalski said.
This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.