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In spite of erratic winters in Latvia, a newly established company Snowision showcases at a ski resort in French Alps the possibility to manufacture artificial snow in a way that is noticeably cheaper and more environmentally friendly.
Maintaining high quality ski slopes that are dozens and hundreds of kilometres long costs a lot of money, which is paid by owners so that connoisseurs with a taste for winter sports would not search another resort. Producing artificial snow for a big resort can cost up to EUR 3 million a year, informs Aleksejs Korabovskis, CEO and co-founder of Snowision Ltd. The company has developed a prototype for a technology that uses sensors
to measure microwaves — it allows remotely detect snow volume, density, and temperature, which in turn allows predicting snow «behaviour», for example, its melting speed. By using specially developed software, resorts can receive this information in real time and quickly decide which locations and to what extent need strengthening of the snow cover. Snowision Ltd estimates show that to produce snow only when it is necessary in the locations where it is necessary would reduce expenses by 40 %.
Since last year, the prototype has been tested in collaboration with a consultant — French company Dianeige, at a ski resortin French Alps. The resort keeps operating as usual, which at the end of the season will allow to compare the amount of the produced snow with calculations based on sensor data on the rational amount of snow needed. The resort has expressed readiness to buy the product if test results confirmed that they have saved money, says A. Korabovskis. This will be the company’s first step: their plan starts from the moment they sell the first finished product, and during the next seven years they want to reach a turnover of EUR 500 million and equip 500 out of approximately 5000 ski resorts with their sensors. The target market of Snowision Ltd are ski resorts in Europe, North America, and China, it does not include Latvia. A. Korabovskis says that in North America the society is putting pressure on winter sports recreation providers to reduce water consumption in manufacturing artificial snow. It is important to note that manufacturing of snow is also energy-intensive.
Previously conducted tests were performed at a weather station beyond the Arctic Circle in Finland, which helped refine the prototype.
Snowision Ltd is one of the companies arising from an international deep-tech commercialization platform — Commercialization Reactor — based in Latvia. There A. Korabovskis met researchers Alexander Feigin, Alexander Shvetsov, Vitaly Ryskin, Mihail Belikovich, Dmitry Muhin, and Lev Fedoseev working at the Institute of Applied Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Nizhny Novgorod, who made the sensor. Even though microwave diagnostics are known worldwide, evaluation of snow parameters is a new application type. Furthermore, the newly developed sensor is unique due to its small size, which makes it noticeably cheaper and appealing for the market.
A. Korabovskis says that the technology can be used to develop sensors for measuring atmospheric temperature, ozone levels, and predicting thunderstorms, however «the market potential for all of these applications is small. We carried out market analysis, met people from the industry that attested that if we managed to create a product, ski resorts would be interested in it.» Snow depth can be measured with other methods, the most popular method being a GPS sensor attached to a snow tractor and showing its position above the ground. «It is impossible to calculate snow mass if you only have information on snow depth and do not know snow density — it does not allow to predict the time for the snow to melt,» adds the CEO.
Snowision Ltd is not the first startup of A. Korabovskis. He is interested in forming scientifically-based companies, even though he has not always been successful — three startups quickly ceased their operation. Snowision Ltd has been in development for four years, in parallel A. Korabovskis is involved in working on two more new ideas — development of a cheaper OLED technology using lanthanide compounds, and a compact neutron generator (N-Capture). The OLED technology is being developed by Evoled Ltd who are collaborating with Lomonosov Moscow State University, the Institute of Solid State Physics of University of Latvia, and Fraunhofer Society in Germany, receiving investments of up to EUR 385 000. Snowision Ltd have attracted investments amounting to EUR 65 000 from private investors — angel investors and venture capital fund Imprimatur Capital. Funding for product development was attracted by joining startup accelerators. At the end of 2017, the company concluded its membership in a startup accelerator led by Climate-KIC — a climate knowledge and innovation community. Last year they won the competition in French Tech Ticket program, receiving support in developing their product and the opportunity to grow in one of the business incubators in France. Participation in international startup accelerators lets A. Korabovskis compare ideas in Latvian startups to those in other countries. He believes that Latvia has a higher scientific potential, teams have researchers that are as active as entrepreneurs.
Continuing to develop the product, the team plans to make their software more user-friendly and build it according to their wishes. To make one sensor cover a wider area, they intend to use drones.
When asked whether he himself enjoyed winter sports during product development at ski resorts, A. Korabovskis admits that he is a beginner skier. He experienced a situation when a potential client grabbed his skis and said — I’ll meet you at the foothill. What an adventure that was!