Swapping wind tunnels for Gibli Tech
Whether you’re cycling to work, competing in an Ironman, or training for the Tour de France, the more aerodynamic a cyclist can make themselves, the faster they will be. That’s where wind tunnels come into play – if you’re fortunate enough to use one.
“Wind tunnels are used so that cyclists can get into their most aerodynamic position,” Ben Bschaden, mechanical engineer, former competitive cyclist and Founder of Feder Cycling Dynamics, said. With Feder Cycling Dynamics, he designed and built a cutting-edge force platform for wind tunnel testing in Edmonton, Alberta. Bschaden is now working out of Volta in downtown Halifax, developing his second startup, Gibli Tech, as the company’s co-founder and chief executive officer.
He explained that wind tunnels are large chambers with giant turbines on one end, which simulate actual wind conditions. A cyclist secures their bike on a force platform, and each test measures, records and analyzes the impact slight position changes have in reducing drag.
“The limitation is that in the end, you have one ideal set up, but – two weeks later – there are really small changes that have occurred and it’s hard to memorize what your exact position was when you were sitting in the wind tunnel,” Bschaden said. “You’re in this locked in position because your bike is fixed to the force platform and you’re not moving around the same as you are outside. So it’s really quite limiting compared to just being able to see while riding.”
Wind tunnels are also far from affordable.
“There are very few amateurs that ever go because it can be $1,000 or more per hour, not to mention travel costs, and there’s only really a couple of wind tunnels in North America that you can go to as an amateur athlete,” Bschaden said.
“Only the very top-tier would go to a wind tunnel. Most national teams, or smaller professional teams are not in a position to cover this for their athletes,” added Mark Ernsting, the other half of Gibli Tech’s founding team and the company’s chief global strategist. Ernsting is a former Professor of Exercise Science and Sports Management, a five-time Canadian National Track Cycling Champion, the first Canadian to be a certified UCI Rider Agent, and founder of M1 Sports Management.
He began cycling during his undergrad, and noted that the cost of getting into a wind tunnel can be a barrier for many athletes. “I always wanted to go to a wind tunnel because my expertise were in timed events, but it just wasn’t in the cards financially as a student athlete,” Ernsting said.
So three years ago, while Bschaden was developing Feder Cycling Dynamics in Edmonton and Ernsting was growing his company M1 Sports Management Inc. in Vancouver, the two met through a mutual friend and went for coffee to discuss their shared passion for cycling and interest in aerodynamics.
“Since our very first meeting, there was an incredible connection between the two of us, with both of us having that same vision to create a sensor like this for many years,” Ernsting recalled. “At Gibli, we are creating a sensor that allows people to not have to go to a wind tunnel. We have developed their own personal wind tunnel with a sensor that provides real-world aerodynamics for them.”
While they were eager to get to work right away, Bschaden noted that it took some time to determine how the product would function and what it would look like.
“At first, we didn’t know if it would be a hardware or a software, app-based product,” Bschaden said. “Over the next few months, we explored different ideas, and even looked at if we could create a scanning tool using a phone. After looking at more options for a few months, we decided that a highly accurate sensor is the best way to approach it, and started building prototypes from there.”
During that time, Bschaden moved back to Halifax, and spent a lot of time on the phone planning with Ernsting, who resides in Vancouver. “It’s a lot of late nights and early mornings, ” Bschaden said of the cross-country time difference.
“Coming back to Halifax, I realized how much better the startup atmosphere has become since a few years ago, when I lived here during my undergrad. It’s amazing how much it’s transformed,” Bschaden said. “In early 2019, Gibli got into Volta Academy and that was the start of getting into the ecosystem here.”
Volta Academy helps founders validate their business idea and turn it into a viable, tech-enabled startup. It’s led by various industry experts, and covers everything from design thinking and accounting to customer discovery, product design, branding and more.
“Real-time aerodynamics for the everyday cyclist – that’s been the vision from the beginning… It was just figuring out what that stepping stone was going to be.” Bschaden said, adding that although the business idea didn’t change throughout the 11-week program, participating in Academy helped fine-tune their messaging and determine the right course of action to grow the startup.
“Absorbing the business knowledge and participating in Academy really helped us develop the pitch – I think that was one of the biggest takeaways, and being able to package the whole thing into a well-presented business,” Bschaden said.
Shortly after Volta Academy wrapped up – in May 2019 – Bschaden was eager to practice his newly-perfected pitching skills; first, he pitched the idea during a quarterly Pitch Competition in the Volta Event Space, presented by Cox & Palmer, where he won swag, a $500 Visa gift card and was added to the ‘I’ve got 99 problems but my pitch ain’t one,’ trophy. Then, one week later, Gibli earned a coveted spot in the Volta Cohort pitch competition, where 15 entrepreneurs pitch their ideas for a shot at $25,000 in investment, dedicated workspace, access to mentors and resources at Volta, and more.
“I guess we always thought we had a pretty good chance, but obviously there was super strong competition too, and it was pretty nerve-wracking. We had a lot of help from key mentors in the network, who really helped us prepare for the pitch – so that was absolutely huge,” Bschaden said. He added that when the judges returned and announced Gibli Tech as one of the five companies selected for the program, “It was probably one of the biggest rushes I’ve ever felt.”
“From my experience, the community has been incredible. Seeing how all of the different partnerships in the space work together, know each other, complement each others’ skill sets and the opportunities they provide startups is a big, key factor in the success of young companies such as ours,” Ernsting said. “If you think about how you build sports teams, or a company, you start by bringing together the most talented staff, or player strengths together, to make up the overall team – that’s something I’ve been really impressed with here; the types of resources, support and opportunities that are available for companies like ours is instrumental for success”
Fast-track to late 2019, and the duo have made huge progress since their big Cohort win. Gibli has gone through Volta LEAP, a program that prepares early stage startups for accelerator programs through workshops and one-on-one training sessions. Following LEAP, they were accepted into Creative Destruction Lab – Atlantic.
They’re also on their eighth prototype, which is already quite small, with a shape that is similar to a small walkie-talkie, but much lighter. It mounts on the front of a cyclist’s handlebars in the same way a cycling computer would, and most importantly, it doesn’t require an expensive wind tunnel to gauge how aerodynamic a cyclist’s position is.
“It doesn’t know if, for example, your head position is different, or your shoulders are wider, but it gives you an overall number for your aerodynamics, the same way a wind tunnel would. The wind tunnel can’t differentiate either if my head is up or down, but it gives you an overall picture of your equipment and your body position. It gives you a value of, for example, 0.3 – it would be the same with ours,” Bschaden explained. “We measure wind speed along with a number of other factors, and we calculate that value the same as you would get in a wind tunnel.”
He added that the next prototype will have a strong emphasis on the user experience, that will include integrating a phone application and cycling computer to display the aerodynamic value.
“Just like how a cycling computer will indicate what the speed, cadence, heart rate, or power is, now it will also include the cyclist’s CdA – that will be your aerodynamic value that will be displayed on your computer,” Ernsting explained.
And while wind tunnels will soon be a thing of the past for Bschaden and Ernsting, for now, they are the best option to test and validate the accuracy of each prototype.
“The wind tunnel is the best validation that we can have on the value of our CdA. Then, we go outside and trial directly afterward in the same position to see how close those values are,” Bschaden said. “Then, there’s obviously lots of in-between testing for each individual variable that we test to confirm and see how things are improving.”
Back in July, they had 13 athletes meet them in Edmonton to do real-world testing. Each athlete spent two hours, making small changes after each test. The best position for each athlete was then confirmed based on their findings.
“On average, there was a 12 per cent reduction for all of them. It ranged from the very least at three per cent … and the most was a 28 per cent improvement for one person,” Bschaden said.
As they continue to iterate on their prototype, they are working out of Volta and the Emera ideaHub at Dalhousie University.
“We couldn’t imagine doing this anywhere else,” Bschaden said. “Being in the community here, is just completely invaluable – it’s been great.”
Ernsting added, “We are now looking forward to bringing this product to market to help athletes unlock their ultimate performance through real-time aerodynamic data.”
Visit giblitech.com to learn more.