Text and photo: Torbjørn Brovold
A group of geologists and scientists are entering Myrkdalen, a popular mountainous area outside Bergen. The wet snow makes it difficult to access and fog makes it exceptionally challenging to make headway in the mountains.
In other words, it is a highly realistic scenario for Western Norway.
“Can we make a base here?” trainee Camille asks the others, only a few hundred metres into the mountains. The dogs come to a stop. The geologists insert a marking rod in the snow and start digging.
POPULAR EXCURSION AREA
They are equipped with a yardstick, notebook and pencil. But in an era when everything has to be smart, the big difference is obviously in the technology.
Their skis are fitted with a small, oblong box in front of the binding. Today, they are testing whether this little box can look down into the snow and see what the snow layers look like.
The little gadget is named Sknow and is the result of just over two years of trial and error. The sensor contains an antenna and a radar that analyses two metres below the skis to get information about the danger of an avalanche.
“The goal is to give people more data about nature, so you can avoid danger. We may even save lives,” says a modest project manager Monica Vaksdal. She started up the company Think Outside, which has secured a patent for the sensor.
“We have to make it ready for the next season,” Monica adds assertively to her research colleagues on the cliff. The aim is to launch skis equipped with the Sknow technology for rescue workers and experienced guides on mountains and slopes for the 2021 winter season. Last year, 13 people were killed by avalanches in Norway, while there were 69 near-miss accidents.
The only problem is that Monica needs more capital to make the skis slide.
To understand how the idea of a ski sensor evolved requires you to understand Monica’s origins. Monica started out as a geologist in the field of snow and ice in the 1990s. As the field wasn’t very lucrative back then, she started working in the petrochemical industry for a while.
“I saw that I was educating myself for unemployment, so transitioning to the oil industry was quite easy because I was already familiar with the sector,” Monica says humbly.
This proved a blessing in disguise for Monica. In 2016, she was a victim of industry cuts, which prompted her to embark on a maturation process, at the same time that she started out as an entrepreneur.
She points out that her work isn’t that much different today, however.
“Like in the oil industry, we deal with the uncertainty and data that exists today. We have to assess risks, which is how we can make informed decisions,” Monica says.
NO SPECIFIC IDEA
At the Think Outside office in Bergen, Deborah is keen to show off where it all began two years ago. She was one of 50 applicants invited to a job interview in response to an ad on Finn.no, whose sender had no established company or specific idea of how to make money.
“I took a big risk. I was studying at BI at the time, learning to speak Norwegian.
I knew that 96% of start-ups fail, but I still thought it would be fun and that I wanted to start up something. You just have to jump into it,” Deborah explains.
The only qualification for the job was that you had to love working with nature.
Deborah, an American, took the chance. She became co-founder of the start-up without any promises or guarantees of income. The sender of the job ad was Monica, and a month later, in January 2017, they started Think Outside together.
Today, the team is made up of seven permanent employees and a number of adept students, with a mixture of engineers, developers, interns, geologists and an investor – all of whom are keeping the dream alive.
THE SKNOW TEAM
Deborah shows off skis that have been retrofitted with gaffer tape, drilled and fitted with food boxes and accessories for attaching the sensor. Think Outside had to travel a long way before it could afford to conduct experiments with such solutions. They received support from the Research Council, and Innovation Norway, and ski manufacturer Åsnes is helping them build prototypes.
“We’ve had our ups and downs. It’s been very educational to start up a business, and we’ve had to figure most of it out along the way. Through trial and error, and by talking to our customers.
It took us almost a year to get started on the project,” Deborah explains.
Back on the cliff, the fog has lifted. The entourage has finished collecting data and testing, and they are making their way back to the cars that will take them home. They look at the data collected by the sensor on a couple of monitors.
“We collect data like this several times a week throughout the season to make sure the sensor is as good as possible,” says Monica with a cunning smile.