The Avy Lab: How AvaTech will change the way we see snowpack

Brint Markle was living in Zurich, Switzerland in 2010 when he had a major wakeup call. The Philadelphia native was working overseas as a management consultant and skiing at Verbier, as he often did, when one of his friends was caught and partially buried in an avalanche on the backside of Mont Fort.

“We just kind of let adrenaline and excitement get the best of us,” says Markle, 29, co-founder and CEO of AvaTech, a new avalanche safety company. Markle calls the incident a “classic example of ability over education” and, reflecting on that day, thought, “Why hadn’t we done the correct level of snowpack evaluation, why hadn’t we stuck our hands in the snow, why had we made those poor decisions….”


Brint Markle and Thomas Laakso testing the SP1 in South America. [Photo] Adam Clark

He took that memory with him back to the states where, in 2012, he enrolled in a Master’s program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Mass. “When I got to MIT I knew I wanted to start a company in the outdoor industry,” Markle says. “It was about three weeks into school when that idea hit me full force.” That first semester, in a product design class, he met mechanical engineers Sam Whittemore and Jim Christian, and they hatched the idea for Avatech, a company that would create products focusing on proactive avalanche safety.

avatech_sidebarThe trio decided they wanted to create something that could look at snowpack and influence decision-making. But it wasn’t until they explored a few options—like radar and sonar—that they landed on the concept of a probe that could measure snow structure.

“It’s a probe, sure, but there’s a lot of different features that go into it, and it was completely a team effort,” says Christian, 25. “We’re all listed on our patents,” Whittemore, 23, adds, “so it was all of us bringing the technology together.”

Two years and more than 50 prototypes later, they launched their products in September at the International Snow Safety Workshop in Banff, Canada. Their SP1 probe (see sidebar) calculates snow densities, geotags locations of probe measurements and uploads data to a cloud-based platform, called AvaNet, so users can track weak layers across space and time.

Markle, Whittemore and Christian have assembled a team of a half-dozen MIT alumni and outdoor industry veteran Thomas Laakso, a 10-person business advisory board and an industry advisory board of more than a dozen avalanche experts and mountain guides. They’ve partnered with the American Institute for Avalanche Safety and Education (AIARE), the Forest Service National Avalanche Center and major resorts and guiding outfits throughout North America. And avalanche experts who’ve tested the products, born out of an MIT lab, call them everything from “a new baseline” to “a game changer.”

“Literally, for the last 20 years, I feel like I’ve been a paid skeptic,” says Thomas Laakso, who worked for 10 years at Black Diamond Equipment and five at The North Face as a product manager. “I get pitched a lot of crazy ideas, some good, a lot bad, a lot harebrained, and, with an engineering background myself, I’m able to weed through some of the weirder ones.” He first met Markle at last winter’s Outdoor Retailer trade show and immediately knew he was onto something. “Once he described what they were doing, I knew I wanted to be a part of it somehow, somewhere,” Laakso says. So when he left Black Diamond in April, he joined AvaTech as the brand’s president. And when he first traveled to MIT to meet with the whole team, he was blown away.

“I’d always known MIT was a technology center…it’s either Silicon Valley or Cambridge for a lot of technology development,” says Laakso, who worked in aerospace engineering before the outdoor industry. “Not until I was face to face [with the MIT labs] did I see their engineering know-how was at a different caliber.”

Jim Christian also credits their success to their foundation at MIT. After that first product design class, the group applied to the MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator Program where MIT startups receive workspace, funding and mentorship. “The facilities at MIT…an environment full of product designers with hardware startups all around you and supportive people in the field… really helped us accelerate,” Christian says.

This fall, he, Markle and Whittemore moved to Park City, Utah, which, Christian says, will provide a challenge being away from the helpful environment at MIT. But running their business from the Mountain West, where they’re closer to the users of their technology and their industry advisory board, will be a bonus.

Whittemore says the advisory board was essential to their technology’s development. “They really made us feel embedded in the avalanche community even though we were in Cambridge,” he says. “We created a structure of experts around us, and it was really developed within the industry itself.” That board includes snow-science experts and mountain guides alike—like Brian Lazar of AIARE, Karl Birkeland of the Forest Service Avalanche Center and internationally-certified guides Joe Stock and Michael Silitch. “They just center-punched the key advisors of this realm,” Laakso adds, “just really connected with the best of the industry advisors, scientists and professionals.

“It’s not like we’re a bunch of nerds coming out of MIT,” Markle says. “In many ways, the diversity of our team is an advantage to the industry because we have new perspectives from the technology side.”

“We hope that there’s a lot of support and that we’re not the only ones out there looking at a proactive approach to safety,” Whittamore adds. Laakso agrees: “I think this winter is going to be eye opening.”

This story first appeared in the December 2014 issue. To read more stories like it, subscribe here.

Related posts:


  1. FYI The video for Avatech did not load. Sounds like a great product. Wish I could have seen the video.

  2. Your from Philly, you don’t know much about snow.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.