published 28 Mar 2013 by Alena Schmuck in Austria 8 minutes 3 seconds to read

An alpine (ad)venture

Michele Stinco and Elisabeth Frey of polychromelab aim to revolutionise the outdoor sector with their patented fabric for sports gear that can adapt to hot and cold weather. As passionate athletes, they test the products themselves in their alpine lab at 2700 metres of altitude.

Austrian startup polychrome lab design R&D CAST aws Michele Stinco Elisabeth Frey

If our parents knew what exactly we are doing out there, they probably would not be amused,” Michele Stinco grins and exchanges knowing glances with Elisabeth Frey, his partner of 10 years. Although 39 and 40 years old respectively, the two seem like teenagers gleaming with rebellious joy, when talking about this “out there” – the mountains surrounding Hall, a picturesque medieval town in Tyrol. This is where the couple spend up to 20 hours per week climbing, free skiing, snowboarding and ski climbing as part of their R&D for polychromelab. With their startup founded as a limited company in 2012, they aim to revolutionise the outdoor sector by creating innovative fabrics for athletic use.

We have to put real strain on our clothes to test them,” Michele explains. The product designer specialised on textiles is a former pro snowboarder, who enjoys getting active outdoors, however, “professional sports is not everything”, he says. “It becomes stupefying after a while because it’s the same thing over and over again”. An injury forced the Italian, who grew up in the mountainous Schwäbische Alb region in the south of Germany, to end his professional career in the 1990s. “I have always had concrete ideas about what clothes should look like and also how they should function,” the son of a seamstress and a footballer says. This is the background to polychromelab’s approach to innovation: “The best products don’t even exist, yet,” Michele is sure.

Like Michele, Elisabeth, who acts as the company's CEO, was raised “next to the ski lift”. Growing up in the German Black Forest, she competed at ski races as a teenager. Although she later took up a somewhat different career – the mother of two has a degree in business psychology and has worked in the social and the gastronomy sectors – her passion for sports, particularly of the alpine kind, stayed with her. “Michele and I were living in Bolzano in Southern Tyrol for a while, but the winters there weren’t real winters – we missed the snow. This is what made us relocate to the region around Innsbruck.”

History repeating

Surrounded by snowy white mountain ranges and encapsulated by medieval city walls, their adoptive home town looks like out of a tourist brochure for the Austrian Alps. The polychromelab headquarters are hidden in one of the tangled alleys in the middle of Hall’s historic city centre. Michele is outside, putting their sign up on a flagpole crafted out of old skis - a reminder of the premises’ past as a ski manufactory – the world’s smallest one, as Michele knows.

He chats with the neighbours, including the old patron, who seems to be a kindred soul to his new tenants. “He’s an adventurer, who travelled the world on his motorbikes and made handcrafted skis at home. We wanted to keep this spirit and heritage alive. That’s why we left some of the old interior as it was,” Michele says as he points to antique looking wooden skis and 1960s Ducatis that hang from the vaulted ceiling inside the shop.

With their designer glasses of fellow Tyrolean design startup Rolf Spectacles and their innovative business, Michele and Elisabeth are in sharp contrast to their traditional surroundings. “People would expect us to work from a modern and sterile office, but we didn’t want that. We picked this place because of its unique atmosphere and history,” says Elisabeth. Blocking half of the entrance, their dog Carlotta adds to the homely ambience. The loyal canine gets to accompany the couple on their extensive outings in the mountains.

Form follows function

The idea behind polychromelab originally evolved from an invention of Michele’s. After having worked as a product designer for brands like Diesel and Adidas’ sports research department for more than 12 years, he became self-employed in the early 2000s. At this time, he developed the idea of creating a novel fabric for sports garments. The material would have to answer to his own high requirements as a devoted outdoor sportsman: it should help to keep the body’s core temperature stable in both hot and cold conditions, without allowing any energy to go to waste unnecessarily. In addition, it would have to reflect his preference for minimalistic style.

For a few years, this idea remained an ambitious vision. But then, “we got sick of hearing ‘It won’t work’.” After embarking on R&D in summer 2010, Michele and Elisabeth got in touch with CAST, the federal state of Tyrol’s center of academic spin-offs, who helped them develop a business plan and apply for public funding from AWS, and to this day, advise them on important decisions. The impulse XL funding enabled them to finance further R&D together with the University of Innsbruck’s Alpine Research Centre.

Elisabeth hands me a reversible jacket made from polychromelab’s patented Alpine 3 Layer Fabric, which they use for their own apparel but also intend to sell to other producers of sports gear. The jacket is light in weight, soft to touch and simple in design: one side is mattblack, the other is silver – no fancy prints or other gimmicks.

“It was designed for use in two climate zones. When you wear the black on the outside, it absorbs the sun’s energy and UV rays and delivers warmth to the body. The silver material inside reflects the heat radiated by the body, keeps it within the jacket and generates extra warmth. When worn inside out, the metallic fabric has the opposite effect: it reflects UV rays away from the body and helps to keep you cool.” This can come in handy in alpine regions, where changes in altitude are accompanied by different temperatures and capricious weather. Self-evidently, the material is also waterproof and highly abrasion resistant – as tested by Michele and Elisabeth and their gang of torsos, who are holding the line at polychromelab’s outpost on mount Glungezer.

A lab on top of a mountain

The mountain is one of the windiest in the Alps and is comparable to the Himalaya region, as far as temperatures, weather and UV radiation are concerned. While these may not be the most welcoming conditions for your average mountaineer, they are ideal for polychromelab’s purposes. At almost 2700 metres, they have installed dummy-torsos dressed in their jackets to test the reactions of the laminate under harsh alpine conditions. To make things even more extreme, Michele, Elisabeth and the rest of the research team have to hike and climb up to the lab and – during the warmer months – also carry up their equipment, as the goods cable lift only operates until April. Their alpine outpost also opens up further business potential. “We’ve been told that our lab is a unique installation. Of course, it’s not limited to testing just our jackets, but to validate a wide range of other products.”

Independent lab test results as well as numerous awards including the prestigious OutDoor Industry Award, the iF Material Design Award and the Austrian State Prize for Industry Design, confirm polychromelab’s innovation. “Standing on stage next to designers from major brands like Apple and Nike at the iF Awards was a nice recognition for our efforts,” Michele says. “I admit, it was also a bit of a triumph to smile down to my former boss from Adidas, who would never have believed that we could achieve this with our two-person company at the OutDoor Industry Awards, where we won the gold prize last year.”

Staying small, innovative and local

Despite these accolades and interest on behalf of investors, Michele and Elisabeth have no ambitions to grow to the size of their competitors. “We want to stay small enough to be innovative and local – and to keep doing the things we enjoy doing, here in Tyrol, but with a global presence.” This approach follows all processes at polychromelab – from design to production at a small company in Italy. “It’s difficult to find zippers that have not been made in Asia, but we want all components of our jackets to be fairly produced in Europe,” Elisabeth says.

Asked what matters most to polychromelab’s clients - the innovative or the local factor, Michele replies, “To tell the truth, it’s our story and then our product. We aren’t just faceless producers. And I think that people can tell that we’re passionate about what we do.” Their customers’ opinions are also important to the duo. polychromelab will sell their jackets through their website from May for 700 euros. "If we sold them via distribution partners, we would not get direct feedback that we need to further develop our product.”

When working together intensively with one and the same person, as Michele and Elisabeth do, conflicts are naturally inevitable. “It’s not always harmonic because we are two fundamentally different people – I’m more rational while Michele is emotional and likes taking risks - often a bit too much.” However, as Elisabeth states, dealing with conflicts has become one of their strengths. “It was clear that we wanted to do this from the start and now the wheel is getting bigger all the time. It’s not just experimental research anymore.”

 

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