UW-P students engineer rock climbing training board, launch business

Seneida Biendarra, a former University of Wisconsin-Platteville student, practices using the Skillzboard that she, a few classmates and a university assistant professor invented. A prototype fared extremely well in competitions. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — During his long and sometimes treacherous climbs, Gokul Gopalakrishnan often found himself wishing he had a way of practicing some of the skills.

When a person is dangling by a rope sometimes hundreds of feet off the ground, there isn’t much room for error.

“For the longest time, I always wished I had like a portable device with me that was easy to use and easy to set up that could be used to demonstrate and practice various types of climbing skills,” said Gopalakrishnan, an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

So when the scientific research company WiSys Technology Foundation First hosted a prototype hackathon competition on the UW-P campus, Gopalakrishnan decided to reach out to a group of four engineering students who he knew were avid rock climbers and propose an idea.

“I basically reached out to them and said, ‘Hey, how about you guys take on this idea and see if we can make like a portable device that can be used for teaching but also for learning and practicing?’” he said. “They basically ran with it, came up with really good designs and ended up with a prototype that won second place in that competition.”

After a few months passed, the students — Brian Tuttle, Chloe Thomas, Bobby Hebel and Seneida Biendarra — entered the prototype into a different WiSys competition and were awarded first place in September.

The Skillzboard prototype is a 5.5-inch-by-15-inch piece of wood with hardware installed for climbers to hook their carabiners to and practice climbing. They can put the board over the top of a door or fasten it to a tree to practice climbing exercises, using many of the same skills needed during an actual climb with none of the risks.

“It’s weight-bearing, so you can actually hang it on your door and everything, and so it’s pretty realistic,” Thomas said. “It’s a cool way to teach and learn skills before you get actually outdoors in the top of the climb where it’s obviously higher risk out there.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this year and classes at UW-P all moved online, many people in the rock climbing community felt unable to go out and enjoy their usual recreation. They yearned for ways to continue practicing and developing their skills.

Gopalakrishnan and the team of engineering students reached out to WiSys to see if it would be interested in commercializing Skillzboard to be sold to beginner rock climbers or those wanting to continue practicing even when getting outside isn’t an option. WiSys agreed to help with a patent for commercial use.

This year, the American Alpine Club, which hosts a rock climbing conference every year, was able to use the Skillzboard to demonstrate various skills during its virtual conference.

“They partnered with us to support their online clinics because Skillzboard allows you to have an instructor with a board on one end and students with a board at the other end, and you can have an interactive instruction process that goes back and forth,” Gopalakrishnan said.

During the past few years, rock climbing has continued to grow in popularity. The industry grew at a rate of 6.9% in 2016, 10% in 2017 and 11.8% in 2018, according to Climbing Business Journal. And sport climbing is set to make its debut in the next Olympics.

Skillzboard only will complement that growth, Gopalakrishnan said. The group of engineers is putting together a manufacturing deal to begin producing more boards. In the past few months, they have sold about 50 packages and made $7,500.

Eventually, boards will be sold to outdoor retail stores and climbing gyms, but for now, they can be purchased on the Skillzboard website.

“I think that these kinds of opportunities that expose students to entrepreneurial thinking are really valuable and will serve them well in life, and I have learned tons from this process myself,” Gopalakrishnan said.