It’s an idea that has evolved since 2019 when four University of Wisconsin-Platteville engineering students and Dr. Gokul “Gopal” Gopalakrishnan, associate professor of engineering physics, discussed their passion for rock climbing and developed the first prototype of Skillzboard. The device won first place at the 2019 WiSys Innovation Showcase at the Wisconsin Science and Technology Symposium, and second place at the Prototype Hackathon. Today, Gopal; Brian Tuttle, a 2019 mechanical engineering major; Chloe Thomas, a 2019 mechanical engineering major; Bobby Hebel, a 2019 mechanical engineering major; and Seneida Biendarra, a 2020 industrial engineering major, are now partners and have started their own company.
According to the business, “Skillzboard is a portable, modular plywood device that allows climbers to teach, learn or practice roped-climbing techniques, from anchor building and cleaning, to rappel methods, rescue techniques and big-wall tricks like hauling and aiding.”
Rock climbing is a growing sport, but there is little room for error. “You have to be really solid in all the technical safety skills that are needed to participate in the activity,” said Gopal. “The product we are developing helps climbers achieve that competence from the safety of their homes. It is something that does not exist on the market yet. There is nothing like it currently; it’s a very interesting unknown.”
Early on the Skillzboard team partnered with WiSys to pursue intellectual property protection and commercialization of the device. WiSys has since filed a patent application on the technology and has licensed the intellectual property to the newly formed startup, Skillzboard, LLC.
“WiSys presents events like the Prototype Hackathon and the Innovation Showcase to give students a venue to explore and develop innovative ideas,” said WiSys President Arjun Sanga. “It was clear that the Skillzboard team had a great idea and we’re thrilled to partner with them to bring it to the marketplace.”
Gopal calls it a great experience working with WiSys along with his former students, now colleagues and co-founders. “Not only are we learning skills we never had before about what it takes to start a business, which is challenging, exciting, frustrating, but still such a cool learning experience,” he said. “We are putting this out there for users and hearing really cool ideas about what other things climbers can do with it. We are getting a glimpse of where we can take this.”
Skillzboard has also partnered with a Wisconsin manufacturing company in the Fox Cities. They are expecting the first production run in October. The company will also receive assistance from current UW-Platteville students.
“We are setting up a sponsored project on campus to hire students to do the final steps of the manufacturing, using the student machine shops in Engineering Hall,” said Gopal.
UW-Platteville students will be able to see first-hand how an idea can form into a tangible item. Gopal encourages students to take advantage of the opportunities the university offers like participating in the Prototype Hackathon.
“We are starting to see real value in incorporating a design and entrepreneurial mindset into engineering students,” he said. “It enriches their learning experiences. It makes it possible to gain not only confidence, but also the competence to go out into the field and be able to apply these ways of thinking.”
Gopal wants students to know instructors are here to help mold their innovative ideas. “Do not feel this is something that requires either experience or having a concrete plan,” he said. “Even if you have the slightest interest be aware, we [professors] are happy to work with you and will help figure out the next steps.”
As Gopal and his former students work on Skillzboard, they believe they have found the right niche to share their product. The sport of climbing will make its Olympic debut at the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2021.
“We expect rock climbing will continue to explode in the next few years,” said Gopal. “With all these new people flooding into this area. We need more pathways to educate them and keep them safe. We think Skillzboard can fill that role.”
The Skillzboard team recently gained a highly coveted partnership with the American Alpine Club, to support the 2020 Craggin’ Classic Digital Series, a nationwide event that combines climbing education with conservation and advocacy initiatives.