GUNNISON — In the basement of the new Paul M. Rady Engineering School at Western Colorado University, Professor Greg VanderBeek guides six students using a horizontal band saw to cut 2-inch steel pipe.
“Remember, perfection happens at the welding table,” says VanderBeek as the students measure.
Soon the students are grinding corners and welding a frame that they will use to stress test expensive carbon mountain bike wheelsets. Next they will develop tests for skis. Then helmets and technical fabrics. Then every other type of gear that is part of the red hot outdoor recreation industry.
“It will be very interesting to see what innovations come out of these tests. This will inevitably lead to the advancement of new technologies,” says Jeni Blacklock, director of the Department of Engineering and Computer Science at Western University, which has partnered with the University of Colorado. “It’s such an interesting question: How will the industry adapt to what we’re doing here?”
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The students – all juniors – are part of the country’s first outdoor engineering program. And they’re part of an even more recent partnership between their school and Crested Butte’s Blister Review, a hugely popular team that produces detailed technical reviews for high-end outdoor gear. As engineering students test bikes, skis, jackets and more at the new Blister Labs, they will create a new set of standards for measuring the demands, effectiveness and performance of outdoor gear. The collected data is then relayed to Blister Review’s gear experts, who incorporate the scientific assessments into their in-depth reviews, which reach tens of thousands of followers.
“Adding these quantitative components takes our work to the next level,” says Jonathan Ellsworth, Founder of Blister Review. “We will be spotlighting equipment for the entire outdoor industry worldwide. That will change everything.”
Gear makers love to use strange words to describe their stuff. Bicycle rims are “compliant”. Bike designs are composed, intuitive, or confidence-inspiring. Skis are “wet” and “forgiving”.
“I want to know how numbers can relate to these words,” says Justin Perdew, who is in the first cohort of Western’s outdoor industry engineering program. “Maybe it’s just the engineer in me, but making this kind of data available to the public is something that’s never been done before. You get all these buzzwords, but you don’t have a quantifiable definition. Maybe that’s what we can offer.”
Zachary Hindes, a student in the Engineering and Outdoor Recreation Program at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado, grinds the joints of a metal beam March 2, 2022. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Gunnison County, with its down-the-road mountain town and growing university separated by a wide-open valley, is an outdoor mecca. And a growing list of unique collaborations and partnerships are helping to steer the county’s economic development away from a heavy reliance on tourism and towards a diverse collection of innovative entrepreneurs focused on the great outdoors.
The region’s turn to the outdoor industry began a few years ago when tourism champions transitioned the region’s visitor association into what is now the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership. With marketing dollars raised from a lodging tax that encouraged not only tourism but also economic development, the county began incorporating Western Colorado University into broader plans for growth and economic development.
TAPP invests $500,000 in Western’s outdoor engineering program, which combines with the outdoor industry’s first-ever MBA program to create a combined engineering and MBA degree for undergraduates. This MBA program, created in 2018 at the urging of then-Governor John Hickenlooper, offers business degrees that focus on the outdoor industry’s most pressing issues, including sustainability, climate change, responsibility, resource conservation and supply chain challenges.
Western is also home to ICELab, an on-campus center for businesses and students. The coworking space offers entrepreneurs and students space to work together on new ideas and business models. ICELab’s new partnership with Moosejaw Mountaineering — an outdoor retailer owned by Walmart — offers a mentoring program for emerging outdoor brands.
Jeni Blacklock (left), principal of the University of Colorado-Western Colorado University Partnership at the School of Computer Science and Engineering in Gunnison, Colorado, discusses 2/3 (Dean Krakel, Special for The Colorado Sun)
A graduate of the program, Georgia Grace Edwards, relocated her innovative SheFly business to Gunnison, creating 24 new jobs for the valley. Other alumni of the ICELab Accelerator programs include First Ascent’s Instant Coffee, bicycle pedal maker Hustle Bike Labs, and Pact Outdoors, which makes a kit to properly bury human waste in the forest.
“I think it’s really interesting to think about how we can bring together the private and public sectors, as well as the education sector, to solve this challenge of economic diversification,” says Taryn Mead, assistant professor and coordinator of the MBA program for students who are study product development. She helped launch the first ICELab Accelerator program. “If I can say to my MBA students, ‘Come here and develop your product, we have all this great equipment and facilities to do that, do your MBA at the same time and join this incredible network of professionals.’ There’s just so much energy and momentum.”
Now comes Blister Labs, which brings together the Blister podcasts and reviews, with millions of visitors per month, with an engineering school that will soon be setting new standards for mountain toys.
“There’s just this collective dynamic in the valley around the outdoor industry,” says Blacklock, whose long-term plans include developing an outdoor manufacturing hub — with housing — for start-up entrepreneurs in the valley.
“Digestible” metrics from Blister Labs
The traditional careers of engineers and MBAs in the outdoor industry have included students working in other industries and then eventually moving into jobs that reflect their passions. Western is helping to change that, with graduates ready to work in an outdoor industry that’s becoming an economic powerhouse.
A student in the Engineering and Outdoor Recreation program at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado, holds pieces of plastic that broke under stress during testing. (Dean Krakel, special for The Colorado Sun)
The outdoor focus eased “one of the scary parts” of engineering school, says Perdew, who grew up fishing and exploring around his Bailey home.
“At some point you have to make a choice, and that’s your job, possibly for the rest of your life,” says Perdew. “The more I do stuff like what we do here, the more I want to be a part of the outdoor industry. I originally thought I would go into aerospace, but I really like having fun outside. So you can be outside while working. That is the ideal for me.”
Not so long ago, outdoor recreation was an after-work pursuit. Now, with the outdoor industry’s contribution to the national economy reaching $788 billion per year and recognized as the leading economic driver for rural communities, high-paying jobs await graduates who specialize in outdoor recreation.
“I think the industry is finally getting to a point where it can start paying engineers salaries,” says VanderBeek. “And so now this is an outlet for engineers to pursue their passions, it’s not just ‘Well, I’ll take a low salary because I want to work in the ski or bike industry.’ Now it’s like, ‘No, that’s actually a viable career for me.'”
VanderBeek and Blacklock say well-known and emerging outdoor brands are turning to Blister Labs’ collaboration with engineering students and professors to help create more “digestible” metrics to measure the effectiveness of high-end gear.
Ellsworth, who studied philosophy before launching Blister in New Mexico more than a decade ago, has a long list of actions that can be improved in the outdoor world.
Jonathan Ellsworth, center, skis at Crested Butte Mountain Resort in early March along with a group of his reviewers who are providing in-depth analysis of skis and other outdoor gear for Ellsworth’s Blister Review. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
“Do you actually know what DIN is?” he says about the pressure measurement for ski bindings defined decades ago by the German Institute for Standardization.
How about all the European waterproofing standards for outerwear? Or the stiffness and flex numbers used for ski boots, ranging from 60 to 140.
“These flex rating numbers for ski boots mean nothing,” says Ellsworth, who envisions a future where outdoor gear measurement will be entirely new. “I want to start using meaningful, real and applicable information for outdoor enthusiasts. I am very interested to see what we can share with non-engineers to inform their purchasing decisions or to help manufacturers better understand and think better about the products they are building.”
Blacklock says “the stars are aligning” at Western in Gunnison. The 75,000-square-foot Paul M. Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering just opened and hosts both western and CU students. Students are queuing for specialized training.
Western’s focus on the outdoor recreation economy is evolving into a recruiting tool for students and faculty, Blacklock says. She has seniors she teaches at CU Boulder who transfer to Western for their senior year so they can attend the MBA program and Blister Labs.
“It’s a recruitment tool. It’s a marketing tool,” she says. “We see the best people coming here because it turns out the best people love the outdoors.”