GUNNISON — In the basement of the new Paul M. Rady engineering school at Western Colorado University, professor Greg VanderBeek directs six students using a horizontal bandsaw to cut 2-inch steel tubing.
“Remember, perfection happens at the welding table,” VanderBeek says as the students measure.
Soon the students are grinding corners and welding a frame they will use to stress test high-dollar carbon wheelsets for mountain bikes. Next they will devise 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’s going to be so interesting to see what innovations come out of this testing. It will inevitably result in the advancement of new technology,” says Jeni Blacklock, the director of the engineering and computer science science school at Western that has partnered with the University of Colorado. “It’s such an interesting question: how will the industry adapt to what we are doing here?”
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
The students — all juniors — are part of the country’s first outdoor engineering program. And they are part of an even newer partnership between their school and Crested Butte’s Blister Review, a wildly popular team that crafts in-depth, technical reviews for high-end outdoor equipment. As the engineering students in the new Blister Labs test wheels, skis, jackets and more, they will create a suite of new standards for measuring the claims, effectiveness and performance of outdoor gear. The data they collect will then route to the gear experts at Blister Review, who will infuse the scientific assessments into their long-form reviews that reach tens of thousands of followers.
“Adding these quantitative components just takes our work to the next level,” says Jonathan Ellsworth, the founder of Blister Review. “We will be illuminating gear to the entire outdoor industry, globally. This will change everything.”
Gearmakers love to use wonky words to describe their stuff. Bike rims are “compliant.” Bike designs are “composed,” “intuitive” or “confidence-inspiring.” Skis are “damp” and “forgiving.”
“I want to know how numbers can relate to those words,” says Justin Perdew, who is in the first cohort of Western’s outdoor industry engineering program. “Maybe that’s just the engineer in me, but providing the public with this kind of data is not something that’s been done before. You get all those buzzwords, but you don’t have a quantifiable definition. Maybe that’s what we can provide.”
Gunnison County, with its end-of-the-road mountain town and growing university separated by wide-open valley, is an outdoor mecca. And a growing list of unique collaborations and partnerships is helping to guide the county’s economic development away from a heavy reliance on tourism and toward a diverse collection of innovative entrepreneurs focused on the outdoors.
The region’s embrace of the outdoor industry began a few years ago, when tourism champions transitioned the region’s visitor association into what’s now called the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership. With marketing dollars collected from a lodging tax promoting not just tourism but economic development, the county began incorporating Western Colorado University into broader plans for growth and economic development.
TAPP is investing $500,000 in Western’s outdoor engineering program, which is joining with the school’s first-ever outdoor industry MBA program to create a combined engineering and MBA track for students. That MBA program, which launched at the urging of then Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2018, offers graduate business degrees that focus on the outdoor industry’s most pressing issues, including sustainability, climate change, stewardship, resource conservation and supply-chain challenges.
Western also is home to the ICELab, an on-campus hub for businesses and students. The coworking space offers room for entrepreneurs and students to collaborate on new ideas and business models. The ICELab’s new partnership with Moosejaw Mountaineering — an outdoor retailer owned by Walmart — offers a mentoring program for up-and-coming outdoor brands.
One graduate of the program, Georgia Grace Edwards, moved her innovative SheFly business to Gunnison, creating 24 new jobs for the valley. Other graduates of the ICELab Accelerator programs include First Ascent instant coffee, bike pedal maker Hustle Bike Labs and Pact Outdoors, which makes a kit for properly burying human waste in the woods.
“I think it’s really interesting to think about how we can bring private and public and educational sectors all together to solve this challenge of economic diversification,” says Taryn Mead, an assistant professor and coordinator of the MBA program’s track for students studying 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 be able to do that, get your MBA at the same time and join this incredible network of professionals.’ There’s just so much energy and momentum around that.”
Now comes Blister Labs, which partners the million-visitors-a-month Blister podcasts and reviews with an engineering school that will soon be setting new standards for mountain toys.
“There’s just this collective momentum in the valley around the outdoor industry right now,” says Blacklock, whose long-term plans include developing an outdoor manufacturing center — with residential apartments — for start-up entrepreneurs in the valley.
“Digestible” metrics from Blister Labs
The traditional trajectory of engineers and MBAs in the outdoor industry involved students working in other industries and then eventually moving into jobs that involved their passions. Western is helping to change that, with graduates ready to work in an outdoor industry that is evolving into an economic powerhouse.
The outdoor focus eased “one of the scary parts” of engineering school, says Perdew, who grew up fishing and exploring around his home in Bailey.
“Eventually you have to choose a specialty and that’s your job, potentially for the rest of your life,” Perdew says. “The more I do stuff like this, like what we are doing right here, the more I want to be a part of the outdoor industry. Originally I was thinking I’d go into aerospace, but I really like having fun outside. So being able to be outside while at work. That’s the ideal for me.”
It wasn’t that long ago that outdoor recreation was a pursuit outside of work. Now, as the outdoor industry’s contribution to the national economy reaches $788 billion a year and is recognized as a leading economic engine for rural communities, there are high-paying jobs waiting for graduates who specialize in outdoor recreation.
“I think the industries are finally getting to a place where they can start paying engineers engineering salaries,” VanderBeek says. “And so this is now an outlet for engineers to pursue their passions, it’s not just ‘Well, I will take a low salary because I want to work in the ski industry or the bike industry.’ Now, it’s like, ‘No, this is actually a viable career for me.’”
VanderBeek and Blacklock say big-name and up-and-coming outdoor brands are reaching out to work with the engineering students and professors at Blister Labs, eager to help create “more digestible” metrics for measuring 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 measurements that can be improved in the outdoor world.
“Do you actually know what DIN is?” he says about the measurement of pressure for ski bindings set decades ago by Germany’s national standardization agency, the Deutsches Institut für Normung.
How about all the European waterproofing standards for outwear? Or the stiffness and flex numbers used for ski boots, which range from 60 to 140.
“Those flex rating numbers for ski boots, they don’t mean anything,” says Ellsworth, who envisions a future with all new standards for measuring outdoor gear. “I want to start using meaningful, real-world, applicable information for outdoor enthusiasts. I’m going to be most interested in seeing what we can carry back to non-engineers to help inform their purchasing decisions or help manufacturers better understand and better think 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, hosting both Western and CU students. Students are lining up for specialized training.
Western’s focus on the outdoor recreation economy is turning into a recruiting tool for both students and faculty, Blacklock says. She has seniors she’s teaching at CU Boulder who are transferring to Western for their final year so they can participate in the MBA program and Blister Labs.
“It’s a recruitment tool. It’s a marketing tool,” she says. “We are seeing the best people coming here because, it turns out, the best people love the outdoors.”