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Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Updated: September 29, 2:41 PM ET
Thinkers, Part 3: Katal Innovations

[Editor's note: This story is the third part of a seven-part series on the ski industry's most innovative thinkers and the creative thoughts and ideas that drive the sport forward. Check back next Wednesday for the fourth installment, an interview with Eric Pollard, skier, filmmaker and designer.]

Part 1: Tom Wallisch Part 2: Snow ScientistPart 3: Katal Innovations

Part 4: Eric PollardPart 5: Snow forecasterPart 6: Hans SmithPart 7: Rick Greenwald

This past winter, first at the Vancouver Olympics (remember that huge jump through the rings at the opening ceremony?) and later at Mammoth, the snow sports world marveled at a new phenomenon: a 3,800-pound inflated bag of high-density vinyl covered by acrylic that serves as a low-impact transition and vastly improves rider safety in the park. Invented by a pair of Canadian engineers, the Landing Pad is the result of a tragic accident that left Aaron Coret, an aspiring Vancouver snowboarder, paralyzed at Blackcomb in 2005.

Coret is 26 now, as is his Katal Innovations business partner and best friend (they met on the first day of engineering school), Steve Slen. Their goals aren't small: They hope to someday revolutionize aerial training grounds for skiers and snowboarders around the world. But first, they have to prove there's a market for such a radical device, which inflates in five to 10 minutes and flushes air out when someone lands. They spoke to us in separate interviews about the Landing Pad's catastrophic genesis, why progression is endangered and what to expect this winter.

Aaron Coret and Steve Slen.

Aaron Coret
My accident happened in February of 2005. I was just up for the day riding the Blackcomb park with a few friends. I came down to the last jump of the park and I was going to do a switch back 5, which was a trick I could do first thing in the morning without even thinking. I came off the jump and just dropped my shoulder a little bit and lost control. I still remember flying through the air, clear as day, thinking, "Oh well, kinda screwed this one up, but I've got enough speed to make the transition so I should be fine." I remember touching down, and everything just went numb. I knew instantly what had happened. I remember staring up at the sky, imagining what my life was going to be like five years from now.

I went to the hospital, and it's a really dark place. You're dealing with losing what you once thought was everything in life, and at the same time you're dealing with all the pain, and all your friends are coming to visit you and crying in front of you. I just felt like I needed something to connect me back to the sport, so I started thinking of ideas. The Landing Pad was something that came to me while I was in the hospital. Immediately I told Steve. He thought it was a great idea and was totally down to do it.

We're really just trying to fill the void for safety. It's something we feel has been neglected. Progression is constantly upping the level of danger, and that's something we're trying to mitigate wherever we can. We saw the park as being one of the biggest places.

The Olympics came about like this: I basically got a cold call one day from [opening and closing ceremonies executive producer] David Atkins, saying, "Come in for an interview. We're really interested in using the Landing Pad, but I can't really tell you much more than that." I had no idea who David Atkins was, so I came in thinking they wanted to do some kind of documentary. They made us sign a nondisclosure, and then they told us, "Great, we'd like to use you for the opening ceremonies." I wanted to jump out of my chair and run around the room, but at the same time I had to hold back and act professional.

Steve Slen
This next season we're trying to do an event series across North America. Our goal is to loop around from the West Coast of the U.S. to the East, then come back into Canada through Quebec or Ontario and head back west for the springtime. Nothing's been booked yet, but we do have some interest from various resorts. Mammoth will probably be one. That's where we did our event in May, and it went really well. Almost 500 riders showed up in a 10-day period.

I've had people from 5 years old to 55 years old hit this thing. The little guys are just getting familiar with their speed awareness, whereas these 50-year-olds are coming back after they used to do backflips when they were younger, but it's almost the same smile you see on people's faces.