Also see our infographic in this data here
An analysis of the dominating patents and emerging technologies in the skiing market
In recent articles and infographics we’ve explored the role of IP in wearable technology, helmets and head gear, and various sporting industries like cycling and football where innovation is alive and well! With winter approaching, we thought it was an ideal time to explore the role of patents in the Alpine skiing industry and see if we can find any areas where ski equipment is evolving. What we found is that technology advancements in core skiing equipment saw a spike in the mid 1990’s and has been gradually declining since. This doesn’t mean innovation isn’t happening in the industry however. The patent data shows us the innovations are mostly happening in peripheral gear like helmets and goggles. Wearables and connected devices are being applied to skiing gear and it’s interesting to see how they are being integrated into the sport.
Skiing is a very popular recreational activity drawing between 300 and 350 million skiers to the slopes each year worldwide since the turn of the millennium. Alpine skiing, also known as downhill skiing, is the most common type of skiing where the boot heels are fixed to the skis. Decades of invention in alpine skiing equipment have resulted in a large portfolio of over 13,000 patents and 5,000 families.
Patents by Equipment Type
To illustrate the number of patents that exist for alpine skiing equipment, six pieces of equipment were identified: helmets, eyewear, bindings, poles, boots, and skis. Of those six, four have been identified as core equipment: bindings, poles, boots, and skis. The number of patents and patent families associated with each piece of equipment are shown in Figure 1. Although this is not an exhaustive list, it does give a good representation of the significant number of patents in the alpine skiing industry. These patents encompass advancements in design and functionality as well as improvements in manufacturing processes.
Patents by Owner and Core Equipment Type
Overall, skis account for the largest portion of core ski equipment patents making up about 40% of the overall patents. The top five patent owners are: Amer Sports (“Amer”), the Rossignol Group (“Rossignol”), K2 Sports, TMC Corp (now defunct) and the Tecnica Group. These five companies own just over one quarter of the skiing equipment patents. These top five companies have been involved in a number of patent litigation cases, but not to the extent seen in other industries.
Figure 2 displays the ski-related patents of the top five patent owners broken down by equipment type. There are several features of this diagram that stand out. Amer Sport’s dominance is clearly visible with approximately half of the ski, ski boot, and ski pole patents assigned to the company. It is also interesting to see that the spread of filings over the equipment categories is different for each company, which is most likely a reflection of the products that the companies specialise in. For example, K2 Sports’ ski related patents are mostly for ski bindings. This can be explained by the fact that K2 Sports owns Marker, a major player in this product category.
Owning a patent gives a company the right to exclude others from using their inventions. The more patents a company owns, the more inventions they can capitalise on, and indeed the more market share and thus revenue that can be generated. This seems to be the case for Amer Sports; the company has the highest number of ski patents and had by far the largest revenue of the top five patent holders with its “Winter and Outdoor” business segment reporting revenue of €1.37 billion in 2014. The company with the second highest revenue recorded in that year was Rossignol which had sales of €223 million and guess what? Rossignol has the second largest ski patent portfolio. It would appear that large patent portfolios and record revenue figures go hand in hand. However, having a large portfolio isn’t a guarantee for success if you don’t continue to innovate, as we shall explore with the case of TMC Corp in the next figure.
Figure 3 displays the patent filing activity of the five top players. There are several interesting trends and features evident from this data. The filing rates began rising in the 1960s at the same time that ski bindings were becoming standardized. This event appears to have prompted bindings and boot manufacturers like K2 Sports and Amer Sports to start patenting their technology and other manufacturers followed suit. The graph also shows that Amer Sports filed significantly more than any other company and their filing rate had a couple of major peaks in the early 1990s. The Salomon Group, which is a subsidiary of Amer Sports, was responsible for one of the disruptive technologies that gave rise to the first peak as this article on “The Evolution of Ski Shape” published by the International History of Skiing Association explains:
“1990 was the year Salomon entered the ski market with its “cap” ski – a good conventional ski with a seamless one-piece plastic top to replace the traditional “square” sidewalls and topskin. The streamlined look was really just a simpler way to make skis but, billed as a “monocoque” structure, it took the world by storm. By ’93, factories around the world saw their business eroded by the Salomon invasion and decided to invest millions in new molds to build cap skis.”
The cap skis were far less expensive to produce, slashing manufacturing costs and thereby making ski sales far more profitable for the company. The other major advancement that came a couple of years later was the introduction of “shaped” or “parabolic” skis which allowed for much easier, cleaner, carved turns. According to an article about this revolution, by using a parabolic shape skis “could be crafted to fit specific niches of the alpine market” and this was “a boon for an industry that needed longevity in its participants and the ability to convince newcomers that the sport was enjoyable to learn”. The manufacturers of skis, including Salomon, rushed to develop products with this feature.
TMC Corp filed a number of patents in the 1970s and 1980s, but when the other companies including Amer Sports and Rossignol began to invest heavily and ramp up their rate of innovation, TMC Corp’s filing rate began to decline. When the cap ski came out in 1990, TMC was no longer competing, signalling the end of their business. By 1992 their filing rate had dropped to zero. Some of their patents were sold to other ski equipment companies like HTM Sport, while others were abandoned. Despite filing patents early on, they did not innovate at the same rate as their competition and as their revenue diminished they were forced out of the market.
All five companies are primarily manufacturers of skis, boots and bindings. In light of this, and the trends shown in Figure 3, the bulk of the innovations relating to the core skiing equipment appear to have been made in the 1990s and there haven’t been many disruptive technologies for core ski equipment since. This doesn’t mean innovation isn’t happening in the industry, it’s just happening in new areas.
In contrast to the core equipment, which has been in development for decades, newer non-core equipment is where ski related patents are being filed. A rise in safety concerns has led to more advancements in helmet technology and we can see that cutting-edge electronic-based innovations are being specifically applied to the skiing experience through skiing eyewear with Head Up Displays (HUD) and wearable fitness trackers.
Safety concerns after the high-profile deaths of Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy in the late 1990’s and the death of Natasha Richardson in 2009 have made headgear, specifically helmets, a standard piece of skiing equipment on the slopes. As of 2013/14, 89% of people in Switzerland and 73% of people in the US wear helmets while taking part in winter sports. At the same time, the numbers of ski helmet patents has risen from single figures at the turn of the millennium to over 40 in 2012. The vast majority of the ski helmet patents revolve around elements or designs which make the helmets safer. Examples of this include: US8898818B1 with its design for trauma protection; CA2784316C for rotational impact protection; and a helmet fitting element described in US6912736B2. Some ski head gear patents detail other novel features: EP2475276B1 describes a helmet with an LED light incorporated into the back; the helmet design in FR2965152B3 has a retractable visor built in; and US6848122B1 is a patent for decorative helmet covers.
Primarily, skiing eyewear is used to protect the wearer’s eyes from snow, sun glare and UV rays. Goggles are the most common type of skiing eyewear. Although eye protection is an important feature, it is the new uses for ski goggles which have resulted in a resurgence of inventions in this field in the last few years. The use of HUD inside goggles is a growing area of interest. Skiing with HUD promises to change the way information is accessed while skiing. HUD enables skiers to access instant information on performance metrics and achievements, navigation and tracking and also allows for smartphone connectivity. The wearer can see this data via a display incorporated into the goggles. Recon’s Snow2, Oakley’s Airwave and the Z3 from ZealOptics all feature HUD.
An interesting progression of this technology is Augmented Reality (AR) where interactive images are superimposed onto the real-world view of the ski slopes through the use of HUD. RideOn’s AR Goggles and GogglePal are the first companies to arrive on this scene. According to RideOn’s website, the benefits and use of AR in skiing are that the AR goggles add an “extra layer of fun to the mountain with games and challenges” with the ability to “compete against yourself and friends for time and skill” by creating virtual obstacles on the slopes to interact with. A skier can use AR to “find ski lodges, restaurants, and bars highlighted seamlessly in [their] field of vision” and to “see your friends’ locations around you”. There are many patent filings for AR, however there have only been a few patents filed on this matter specifically for skiing.
Figure 4 shows an upward trend over the last five decades in skiing eyewear innovation. A subset of these patent filings, in blue, relate specifically to HUD or AR technologies being incorporated into skiing goggles. As the technology is in its infancy, it is no surprise that they only account for a small fraction of the total filings and that all of those filings have occurred in this decade.
Wearable Fitness Trackers
The market for fitness tracking devices for all types of activities and sports has developed rapidly and has significant growth forecasts. There are 5649 patents and applications and 3470 families for fitness wearables.
In Figure 5 we see the number of filings by application year for fitness tracker patents for the top five companies since the turn of the millennium. The combined filing rate of these companies has been on the rise over the last five years. Patents from Fitbit account for part of this sudden surge. Fitbit produces solely health and fitness products, and was only founded in 2007, yet has generated revenue of over $400 million in the second quarter of 2015. Figures such as this demonstrate the scale of the market for these types of gadgets. In light of this, companies are looking to produce fitness products suitable for all kinds of sports and fitness trackers and monitors for skiing are now entering the market. Products include the LIT fitness tracker from NZN Labs and the TRACE activity monitor from ActiveReplay. Due to the fact that the market for this technology in skiing is in the early adopter phase, there have not been any patents filed specifically for skiing tracker, though it is possible they have yet to be published.
There have been thousands of patents filed in relation to skiing equipment since the sport’s inception. Unsurprisingly, most of them relate to the design and manufacturing methods of skis. Five companies now own a quarter of those patents with Amer Sports leading the way with the highest number of patents and the largest revenue.
Some of the major events in skiing are reflected in the filing histories of the five companies: the standardisation of bindings in the 60s seemed to prompt the patenting of skiing inventions; the invention of the cap ski and the parabolic ski shape in the early 90s proved to be disruptive technologies, forcing TMC out of business while asserting the dominance of Salomon, a subsidiary of Amer Sports.
The emerging technologies that are beginning to enter the market, such as AR paired with HUD devices in ski goggles and skiing fitness wearables, have the potential to transform the way we access information while skiing, enabling us to connect with friends, navigate more easily, interact with virtual objects on the ski runs and record our activity. Is this the next frontier in skiing technology? Will development in these sorts of devices be driven by demand from the next generation wanting more technology and connectivity on the slopes? How will an aging skier demographic affect this trend? It will be interesting to track the progression of ski equipment patents in the coming years to see whether the emerging technologies highlighted in this article fulfill their potential.