Jens Reindl (pictured above) has the build of a professional sportsman. And he used to be just that. The slim and energetic entrepreneur, who welcomes me with a broad smile in his office in Chemnitz, Germany, tells me he used to be a professional figure skater and later a passionate snowboarder training or just having fun in the Alps and the Central German Uplands.
When out and about with his snowboard, it didn't escape Reindl's attention that global warming was leaving an ever bigger mark on traditional, lower-altitude winter sports centers in Europe. More and more resorts in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Austria are indeed seeing their identities as winter sport meccas at risk, with insufficient amounts of natural snow weighing heavily on tourist revenues.
To compensate for the lack of snowfall, many regional operators have chosen to pull out the big guns, as it were, and turn on snow cannons to produce machine-made snow. The graphic below shows that in some areas this practice was already the rule rather than an exception back in 2017 (more recent figures for the whole of the Alpine region are not available).
In addition, ski jumpers have long had the opportunity to pursue their sport with the help of plastic mats, enabling them to train and compete even in summer when there's no snow at all. But back in 2008, Reindl thought this should not be the end of the line as he looked for a suitable replacement for natural snow for other winter sports such as luging, or cross-country and downhill skiing.
Making it marketable
"It took quite some time to turn the idea of developing a textile ski slope into a product ready to hit the market," CEO Jens Reindl tells DW. "Together with a couple of friends, and after years of extensive research at the Technical University of Chemnitz, we had a first public presentation of a prototype of such an artificial slope in 2012, but it took another three years before we as a startup finally came up with a marketable ski run."
When working on the textile slope, the devil was in the detail. The material had to go beyond the properties of artificial ski jump mats that were only suitable for straight movements on skis. "These mats are no good for carving or wedeling," Reindl says. "In addition, materials like those used in such mats need to be watered or oiled frequently to ensure their gliding properties, and that's not really ecologically sustainable."
Easy to handle
Reindl's company, which is fittingly called Mr.Snow, has been able to produce a synthetic slope that doesn't have to be watered at all. You roll it out wherever you need it, swiftly fix it to the ground and off you go.
The textile slope has a special structure that causes a minimum of friction when your skis just glide over it. But when you need to change direction, the special surface of the bottom layer ensures maximum grip when the ski edges press against it.
Using such slopes feels almost entirely like gliding on real snow, Reindl asserts. "It's the closest you can get right now to real-snow sporting activities."
Having said that, the former snowboarder has never been out to question the use of machine-made snow in general. He says cannons still do a good job in higher-altitude regions in the Alps and elsewhere, adding that "nothing can beat snow." [Editor's note: The author prefers not to use the widely-cited term "artificial snow" with regard to cannons — while it's machine-made from water, the result is nothing less than real snow].
But what if it's a couple of degrees above the freezing point? While the latest generation of snow cannons can even deal with such adverse conditions, they consume a lot of energy year in, year out, whereas Mr.Snow's slopes don't need any energy or water once rolled out, and they last for about 10 years. "In addition, the slopes are fully recyclable when broken down into their component parts," Reindl notes.
His team of seven is still rather small, but Reindl is seeking a bigger partner to help the fledgling company expand. Interest around the globe is growing. The firm has sold its textile slopes to most Alpine nations, predominantly Switzerland and Austria. But business activities have also been going on on other continents, with patents granted in China and the US.
As climate change proceeds, Reindl is certain that more markets can be added in the process.
In the first couple of years, revenues hit five-digit-euro levels, "but we approached the €1 million [$1.1 million] threshold fairly quickly," Reindl says. "I've got to say, though, that it's been a bit of a rollercoaster ride since then because of structural adjustments, but we're hoping to clear the €1 million hurdle this year."
The future could be rosy
There's ample reason to believe that demand for the Chemnitz-made artificial ski slopes may explode if the scarcity of snow gets even worse in many traditional ski resorts around the world over the next years.
Could potential customers get such slopes from elsewhere? Reindl's answer: not really. "To the best of my knowledge, our textile slope is unique globally — I haven't seen anything like it, involving our technology and showing the same properties."
He adds that when it comes to skiing, he did come across a completely different kind of artificial slope made of injected molded tiles. But it doesn't have a completely sealed surface and is not nearly as soft as it should be to avoid injuries.
What's still acting as a kind of dampener on Mr.Snow's business is the fact that the firms' slopes can be used in ski schools for training and leisure time activities in general, but not for international or regional professional contests.
While professional summer ski jump events on artificial mats are fully established now, responsible sports associations have not yet allowed any such contests for, say, cross-country skiing to go ahead on textile slopes in summer. And as far as the winter season is concerned, the International Ski Federation (FIS) stipulates that competitions have to be carried out on real snow.
Reindl hopes, though, that on a more regional level, authorities may soon rethink their resistance and allow contests go ahead on textile slopes, and be it only to boost their revenues from tourism.