Climbing and mountaineering have always been a huge part of life in South Tyrol. It is known as the “land of the mountains” and has produced a number of pioneering mountaineers and outstanding climbers over the centuries. Trailblazing Bressanone-based start-up Vertical-Life is a digitalisation expert and climbing 4.0 pioneer that has already made a name for itself on the international climbing scene.
Despite its short history, Vertical-Life GmbH recently won its fifth ISPO Award, this time around receiving the Award Gold Winner prize for its Rock Selfie product. The winners of the coveted accolade for outstanding, innovative sports products were announced at the ISPO sports products and sports clothing exhibition – one of the largest and most important events on the industry’s calendar worldwide – in Munich at the end of January 2018. The Rock Selfie is a device you can use to take a photo of yourself, which is then automatically edited to feature a spectacular backdrop so it appears as if you are climbing a rock face. The photo can then be viewed on the Rock Selfie website, from where you can download it.
“The Rock Selfie is a fun device for events, especially for people who aren’t climbers”
“The Rock Selfie is a fun device for events, especially for people who aren’t climbers. Who knows, it might even stimulate them to try the sport one day!” says ISPO Award judge Sun Bin, member of the Chinese national climbing team and President of the Summit Outdoor School.
However, the Rock Selfie is just one of several inventions and innovations to be developed by Vertical-Life, although (virtually) its entire portfolio revolves around the company’s core strength of climbing. The start-up focuses on developing digital products and smart technologies, as well as on design. Its main product is the Vertical-Life smartphone app. However, it has also branched out to develop other software solutions for the climbing sector and other market players. This includes a major contract from the IFSC (International Federation of Sport Climbing) to develop a database management system for all athletes taking part in competitions, as well as for all competitions and their results.
Other Vertical-Life products are tied in with the app, such as the Smart Scorecard, a scoring system for competitive climbers, or the Smart Climbing Gym, a route and general management system for climbing centres, which gym operators can use, for instance, to see how often certain routes are climbed and how they are rated.
Vertical-Life is paying particular attention to the training features offered by its app. The team, led by CEO Matthias Polig, believes this area holds huge potential, not least because climbing will be included as an Olympic discipline for the first time at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, which is likely to see the popularity of the sport soar around the globe. In the Vertical-Life app, climbers can put together their own personalised training plans that are tailored to their level of proficiency. “Users are given a training plan based on their chosen climbing gym and how often they want to train each week, and can then track their progress on the app,” explains Polig. The feature was developed in collaboration with instructors and professional athletes.
Videos with professional climbers for the Vertical-Life app
To make various elements of the training plan easier to follow, Vertical-Life recently shot a series of tutorial videos on a specially constructed bouldering wall at the new NOI Techpark in Bolzano. Under the guidance of Ingo Filzwieser, former coach of the Austrian national team and an internationally renowned climbing instructor, world-class athletes like Anna Stöhr, Magdalena Röck, Filip Schenk and David Piccolruaz from the Mammut climbing team were filmed performing basic climbing techniques and exercises (see the accompanying video). Filzwieser is also working with the Vertical-Life team to devise solutions for the personalised training plans.
“The idea behind establishing Vertical-Life was to digitalise climbing guidebooks,” explains Polig, adding that this was partly inspired by the North Tyrolean climbing platform Climber’s Paradise Tirol, a directory of climbing opportunities in Tyrol that is mainly geared towards tourism. What made Vertical-Life stand out was its combination of printed and digital climbing guides. “From the outset, our primary focus was on working with publishing companies. In the field of climbing, publishers are often very small and many guides are self-published,” says Polig. Guidebook sales are often used to fund the upkeep of the climbing areas described and to develop new routes.
Last year, in order to add to this original line of business, Vertical-Life purchased the platform 8a.nu, which was founded by a Sweden and is the world’s largest route database, comprising user-generated data about roughly 750,000 routes around the globe. “Both novice and experienced climbers alike have entered information about many of the world’s greatest routes,” says Vertical-Life co-founder Maria Hilber.
The company’s decision to collaborate with 8a.nu is particularly important given the countless search engine hits received whenever anyone researches routes or climbing areas online. “Vertical-Life, in contrast, provides premium content in the form of a professionally researched route database compiled from climbing guides,” states Hilber. “Now that we’ve purchased 8a.nu, we are in a position to combine these two databases and their users.”
A comprehensive platform for indoor, outdoor and training opportunities
Today, the Vertical-Life app is a comprehensive platform where climbers can find all the information they need throughout the year – from outdoor climbing guides detailing routes around the world released by the company’s own publishing house to apps for use indoors in climbing gyms and training programmes. What’s more, everything is tailored to each user’s requirements. The app’s climbing gym features were initially developed for very pragmatic reasons. “Our hope was that users would access the platform all year long because we also need the traffic to generate advertising revenue,” says Matthias Polig. The additional focus on climbing gyms paved the way to the company entering the field of software development.
Thanks to this specialisation, which has gradually taken shape over the past year or so, the people behind Vertical-Life have begun to describe themselves as a start-up, which was something they weren’t inclined to do at first. “From the very outset, we’ve always wanted to be a company that grows, but we never saw ourselves as a start-up,” says Hilber, who established Vertical-Life with Arno Dejaco and Polig in December 2012. After a year, the three South Tyroleans were joined by a fourth partner, Iiro Virtanen from Finland.
The idea for Vertical-Life was born when Dejaco and Hilber, who worked in the fields of graphic design and communications, handled orders for Polig, who at the time organised climbing events and wrote climbing guides in traditional book form.
The app has since become Vertical-Life’s focal point, although the company mainly owes its continued existence to another product whose success largely rests on its digital features – a wooden training device known as the Zlagboard. The hangboard is used by climbers and boulderers to perform “dry” training exercises, while the Zlagboard smartphone app provides users with an overview of all their training data, which – if desired – can be shared with other Zlagboard owners via the Vertical-Life platform. In 2015, the South Tyrolean company won its first prestigious awards with these products, an ISPO Product Award (Zlagboard) and an ISPO Communication Award (Zlagboard Contest).
“During a period of financial difficulties, the Zlagboard helped Vertical-Life to attract considerable attention and to make a name for itself. This went on to have a positive effect on our app and platform,” says Hilber.
First investor secured in 2016 and another expected soon
The up-and-coming company had another reason to celebrate in autumn 2016, when South Tyrolean cable car manufacturer Leitner ropeways chose to invest in Vertical-Life. “Since being founded, Vertical-Life has made a name for itself thanks to its power of innovation and creative solutions. We are providing the start-up with financial support in the form of a capital contribution as well as access to important resources, contacts and sales structures,” explained Anton Seeber, President of the Leitner Group, when he announced the investment decision. He added that both parties are convinced that the cooperation holds the key to Vertical-Life achieving international recognition.
“This investment has shown other start-ups in South Tyrol that our province is home to financial backers looking to invest in the promising ideas thought up by young entrepreneurs,” says Polig. “I think this has already had a positive impact on the local start-up scene.”
Besides being due to complete its next funding round shortly, Vertical-Life also keeps growing organically. The firm started out five years ago with just its three founders but today the team consists of 20 people and counting. “Vertical-Life is a very personal project for some of these people,” say Hilber and Polig in unison. Especially in the beginning, they and their staff – who they describe as incredibly talented people – worked long hours for little financial reward.
The Vertical-Life team has always comprised a mix of nationalities and today it includes staff from Finland, Lithuania, France, Germany and Morocco. Some of them relocated to South Tyrol specifically to work for Vertical-Life, which has built a reputation for itself in the climbing community far beyond the province’s borders, while others decided to stay in the area after graduating from the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano. From programmers and translators to cartographers, the skill set of Vertical-Life’s team members is just as wide ranging as their countries of origin.
“One of the reasons why people want to join us is that we give them a chance to help shape something new.”
The majority of Vertical-Life’s employees share a passion for climbing and/or other outdoor pursuits. It’s therefore not unusual for (virtually) the whole team to be found spending their lunch break in the Vertikale climbing gym in Bressanone, which is just a stone’s throw from the company’s premises.
“One of the reasons why people want to join us is that we give them a chance to do and help shape something new – and world leading,” says Polig. At first, when Vertical-Life “only” worked on digitalising printed climbing guidebooks, the company had a few competitors in the form of equally small projects and initiatives. However, over time many of these shut up shop and today Vertical-Life, with its comprehensive portfolio, is unique on the market. Having said that, “when it comes to platforms, only the market leader prevails,” says Polig, summing up the situation in a nutshell.
Vertical-Life’s short-term goal is to set up a subscription service for the platform, the preparations for which are all but complete. Subscribers will be able to pay a fee to access the website’s services for a certain period of time. At present, anyone who has purchased the printed guidebooks has access to the outdoor services, while the climbing gym services are available free of charge, as the costs are covered by the respective climbing gym operators. “We’d be happy if just five percent of the users registered on the platform were to subscribe – that would be a good start at least,” says Polig. “The training section of the app will play an important role in helping us to achieve this aim.”
And what are Vertical-Life’s long-term objectives? Where does the company see itself in five or ten years’ time? Or would the founders ever consider bowing out and selling the company with a profit to one of the large players in the field of outdoor pursuits or digitalisation? “Exiting the company has never been our intention,” says Polig, looking ahead to the future: “I am convinced that we have the potential to succeed in other areas of digitalisation by developing and scaling up further digital business models.” However, in doing so he has no plans for the company to act as an agency or to perform too much contract work. “We see ourselves as a company builder, as a partner that helps others to implement their business ideas,” says Polig.
Vertical-Life is dedicated to implementing innovative ideas in the field of outdoor sports, in particular climbing. The Vertical-Life platform is based around a smartphone app for climbers. The company from Bressanone in South Tyrol’s Isarco Valley also develops software solutions for major market players, for example to assist with the management of climbing gyms and competitions. In addition, Vertical-Life produces and sells the Zlagboard, a training device with an accompanying app.
The company’s young team is equally as well-rounded as its product portfolio. Creative minds and qualified specialists with a high level of personal motivation pool their knowledge and skills, working together on product design, software development, graphic design, sales and ensuring projects have strategic direction. This combination of staff allows the company to create top-quality solutions quickly.
Since being founded in December 2012, Vertical-Life has won six international awards, which is a testament to its position as an innovation leader within its segment.
Prestigious awards won by Vertical-Life:
2014 Outdoor Industry Award (Zlagboard)
2015 ISPO Communication Award (Zlagboard Contest)
2015 ISPO Product Award (Zlagboard)
2015 ISPO Brandnew Finalist (Vertical-Life app)
2016 ISPO Product Award (Zlagup)
2018 ISPO Award – Gold Winner (Rock Selfie)