Innovation for Extremes, Mike Parsons and Alpkit Nick

© Nick Smith
EXPERT PANEL r to l: David Sproson (The Outdoor Warehouse, outdoor retailer), Ralf-Stefan Beppler (freelance journalist and contributing editor WSA), Graham Thompson (TRAIL magazine), Mike Redwood (freelance journalist and contributing editor, WSA), Mick Farnworth (Mammut), Ed Douglas (freelance journalist) Mary Rose in foreground, Mike Parsons head in hands.
On Wednesday 26 September, Lancaster University Management School hosted the Innovation for Extremes conference or Innov_ex.

Innov_ex is an innovation conference that specifically targets the outdoor trade. The aim of the conference is to bring together people from a range of backgrounds, but with a shared interest in outdoor activity and in the co-evolution of sport, exploration, clothing and equipment.

The conference was initiated by a discussion between Mary B. Rose and Mike Parsons (see website), first there was a book Invisible on Everest: Innovation and the Gear Makers and then the The Mallory Replica Project (see Mallory Myths), a University course and research project, and the Innovation for Extremes conference.

Edelrid Innovation. The Eddy, the Madillo and the Zap-O-Matic.
© UKC News
The theme of this years conference (now in its 5th year) was innovation and why it should be the key to competitiveness in industry. More specifically why innovation should be driven by the need for new products to meet existing and new sporting challenges? Well that was the hype.

The topics in the lectures were a bit hit and miss, ranging from how radio-frequency indentification could be used in the outdoors to "Are boot linings' breathable?" But there was enough to keep us interested.

The highlight for me was Doug Lumb Senior VP of Product development from Polartec talking about the history of fleece and how suppliers and brands should collaborate.

This was a great talk from a guru of the industry, and I was touched how passionate he was about his work. My notes are littered with names of people he has dealt over the years and the sense of sadness in his voice when he was talking about one of the leading mountain brands that has recently been bought by one of the really big guys. Over the years he measured the success of a development meeting on how well he could see the client. If at the end of the meeting the table was piled high with fabric and he couldn't see you, then he knew he had a good meeting. His disappointment came from a recent meeting were right at the beginning they were asking him what fabrics he had for $5, not what great exciting fabric did he have? Or even better "we need a fabric that does ....this." Needless to say his famous black bag didn't get very empty, and he could see who he was talking to.

This was definitely an underlying theme of the conference on how we as industry can be driven more by what the consumer wants and needs rather than what we think you would like. Mike Parsons summarised this by saying our industry "Pushes, not pulls." Other topic's and themes brought up in the Q and A sessions were:

  • How companies often disable innovation in the way they operate.
  • If a product is truly innovative - will it be commercial, and will it ever get to be commercial?
  • How innovation today is not like the old days.
  • Innovative products = Risk. In today's economic environment can we afford to make these risky products?
  • Design leakage - Why do the lessons learnt/implimated from previous designs get forgotten?

    Breathable membrane or just Leather? Research says not much difference.
    © UKC News
    The session that surprised me the most was the theory put forward by Dr. Mark Talyor from Leeds University and Graham Thompson from Trail magazine. For the past 15 years Graham Thompson has been banging on about membrane lined boots such as Gore-tex, Event, Sympatex and how they where inherently less breathable than a boot without such a lining. We saw the research, it had plenty of graphs and they used all kinds of sensors and stuff's official, the science has been done. The same leather boots with and without a membrane have similar temperature and humidity levels inside them, to a point that you will not notice the difference.

    It would have been nice for us to draw a few more conclusion as group, but then maybe they were drawn up individually and we didn't need to stress the point. For what it's worth this what I took away from the conference. As an industry we spend sod all on Research & Development, and we should spend more (Mark Held - European Outdoor Group) and in every company you need nerds and people with taste (Chuck Kukla - Recreational Equipment Inc (REI) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

    The next conference is in April and it looks like being a good one. Mike Parsons gave a brief overview and there is no doubt that this next event will have great deal of passion, controversy and knowledge.

    About Alpkit Nick Smith

    alpkit Readers of will be familiar with Nick Smith and his partners at Alpkit, a small company of outdoor enthusiasts who design, source and distribute outdoor gear. Keep your eyes peeled for Alpkit's Design Competition which has just rolled out and will culminate at the The Outdoors Show 08.

    You can lean more at

    About Mike Parsons

    Mike Parsons Mike Parsons has spent over 40 years in the outdoor equipment trade. Formerly Managing Director of Karrimor International - a company with 320 employees - he now runs OMM Ltd ( formerly KIMMLite) a specialist in lightweight outdoor gear and is an Entrepreneurial Fellow in the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development at Lancaster University Management School.

    His factory experiences are world wide including China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. He undertook study visits to the USA via a business network of CEOs and absorbed the lessons of lean manufacturing from HP, Apple, Millikin, Motorola and the Toyota/GM joint venture before applying them to his own factory. This resulted in a 'Management Today Best factory award' – runner up prize in 1994. His iconic product designs include, the Karrimat, Whillans and Haston Alpiniste, KSB's, Jaguar SA, Hot Ice and Hot Earth. He held 42 patents and a dozen or so brand registrations world-wide.

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    3 Oct, 2007
    If the breathability of boots refers to the tests in trail while ago then they were actually quite misleading; they weren't really a simple with/without membrane comparison at all. IIRC they used a meindl borneo and burma which are not completely comparable. The borneo is leather lined which is inherently less breathable/wicking and more insulating than the synthetic lining used on the burma. A far more direct comparison would be a boot where the non gore version had a synthetic lining, e.g. rangers
    3 Oct, 2007
    That's an appallingly badly proof-read article: there are several missing question marks, at least two apostrophes in plurals and what is "indentification"? I appreciate that you want to get things up quickly, but in an article I don't think such errors are acceptable. They reflect badly on the site as a whole.
    3 Oct, 2007
    Yip...we could do with a proofer. I'll have another look whilst negelecting essential advertising, news reports...and and I'm out the door in 2 hrs on other UKC work.
    3 Oct, 2007
    Got most of them. Ta. Refresh your browser if checking.
    3 Oct, 2007
    I did say that I know you are busy...
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