Understanding snow with a proactive tool for avalanche safety

With avalanche deaths on the rise, MIT alumni seek a better way to assess risk of a dangerous slide and avoid avalanches before they happen

June 23, 2014

AvaTech cofounders Jim Christian, Sam Whittemore, and Brint Markle test a prototype snow assessment probe in Chile

AvaTech cofounders Jim Christian, Sam Whittemore, and Brint Markle test a prototype snow assessment probe in Chile

In 2010, Brint Markle’s friend was nearly killed in an avalanche in Switzerland. The pair were skiing different routes down the backside of Mont Fort. Markle, by luck, avoided the avalanche.

His friend was carried several hundred yards by the sliding snow and was nearly pushed over a set of cliffs. He survived and skied out, shaken.

“It was a classic example of ability over education,” Markle, MBA ’14, said. “We had more abilities than we did knowledge of the snow and avalanche safety. Bluebird day. Lots of powder. And we said ‘Let’s go for it.’”

“That was not only a wakeup call, but also got me thinking about what happened that day, what went wrong, why we made the decisions we made, and whether there could be anything out there that could prevent something like that from happening,” he said.

Today, Markle is the CEO of AvaTech, a new company manufacturing a device to help avalanche experts such as forecasters, guides, and ski patrol at resorts—and eventually expert skiers—better assess snowpack conditions and the risk of a slide. He believes avalanche safety starts with understanding snowpack and preventing avalanches before they occur.

Avalanche deaths in the U.S. have spiked since the mid-1990s. Recent years have seen as many as 36 people killed over a single winter, compared to annual numbers usually below 10 through the 1970s. Markle attributes the rise to greater interest in backcountry sports and easier access to backcountry terrain.

Experts incorporate a variety of measurements and observations when determining the likelihood of a slide. Currently, assessing avalanche risk involves digging a snow pit and searching for weak layers of snow. Avalanches most often occur when a layer of heavy snow settles on a weak layer. When the underlying layer is disturbed, the top layer loosens and slides downhill.

AvaTech is currently beta testing the AvaTech SP1, a smart snow probe designed to quickly evaluate snowpack to aid in the risk assessment process. The prototype SP1 is a collapsible metal pole with a small computer on the head consisting of a few buttons and a display. It looks like a small piece of survey equipment, rugged yet built for precise science. The probe sends the data it collects to a crowd-sourced database for real time reporting and analysis through online and mobile apps. Markle said AvaTech’s technology may also have broad applications in fields beyond avalanche safety, including oil and gas, manufacturing, and other industrial end markets.

Testing new technology with leading professionals

This winter, AvaTech will sell its first units to ski and snow professionals. “What we tell the pros is that it’s no substitute for experience or judgment,” Markle said. “It doesn’t make the decisions for you. But it helps make the picture more clear. Snowpack characteristics can change dramatically over small amounts of terrain. The way we evaluate snow today, with a single snow pit, we extrapolate in a sometimes faulty way that the information holds true over larger distances than we should.” AvaTech’s probe, Markle said, can pick up weak layers as little as a few millimeters thick.

The probe won’t be an easy sell initially. Brian Lazar, executive director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, said avalanche professionals will want to see proven results before embracing a new technology.

“I mentioned to Brint early on: ‘You’re going to have to overcome some skepticism,’” said Lazar, who is also deputy director at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “If you can actually demonstrate that the probe is picking up the same snowpack structure as a professional observer would see in a snow profile, then I think it would go a long way.”

Lazar said he only tested the SP1 in the spring season, but early impressions were good. “It was picking up a known weak layer that was pretty thin, maybe two centimeters,” he said.

   The AvaTech teamThe AvaTech team

The AvaTech team, which includes co-founders Jim Christian, MIT SM ’14, and Sam Whittemore, MIT SB ’14, and recent key hire Thomas Laakso, former ski category director of equipment company Black Diamond, is expected to grow to more than 10 people in the coming year. The team has engaged the professional community by putting prototypes of the SP1 in the hands of respected skiers and scientists. Twenty-five prototypes went out last winter to testers in the U.S., Canada, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and Switzerland. The device has been tested by major ski resorts including Breckenridge in Colorado, Jackson Hole in Wyoming, and Park City in Utah, as well as by guiding companies and forecast centers. Markle said testers are examining technical accuracy, design and user interface, and durability.

“It’s really just the right approach of soliciting a ton of feedback before product launch and getting the prototypes into a lot of professional hands,” Lazar said.

When the first units ship, it will be the culmination of a two-year process that began during Markle’s first weeks at MIT Sloan in the fall of 2012. He arrived on campus intending to start a company that traded on his passion for outdoor sports. He attended the t=0 entrepreneurship festival, which “got light bulbs going left and right.” He began to think about avalanche forecasting, toyed around with the idea of a product based on radar, connected with engineers at Draper Laboratory for a brainstorming session, and signed up for Product Design and Development, a class that partners MIT Sloan students with students from MIT engineering and the Rhode Island School of Design.

“I feel fortunate to be part of such a special and diverse team with a terrific group of advisors and investors behind us,” Markle said. “Everyone dreams big, is passionate, and brings such different skills to the table. I’m learning something new every day.”

The AvaTech co-founders applied and were accepted to the MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator, a program that provides money, workspace, a board of advisors, and mentorship to burgeoning MIT startups. Markle credits the attention from the accelerator’s demo day with helping to raise a $575,000 seed funding round. He also started spending time at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, where he worked with mentors and faculty members who started successful companies of their own.

“They had our backs the entire way,” Markle said. “It’s amazing to have just an idea and then to have that level of support. You don’t have funding at that point. You don’t have your team built out. You don’t have anything. And yet the team at the Trust Center dives in right there with you and says ‘What can we do to help?’”

Trust Center executive director Bill Aulet said he prepared Markle for the discouragement that can come with creating a product for a niche market, but was struck by Markle’s commitment to using every available support to refine AvaTech’s product and business plan.

“It’s a classic story of using the resources at MIT,” Aulet said. “It’s a platform where he could go and learn at a very, very rapid pace. I don’t think there’s any place in the world where you could learn as much as Brint learned from so many different people.”