The former software magnate who launched KneeBinding says selling his lateral-heel release product is similar to marketing the first air bags for automobiles, but he predicts that the feature--designed to reduce ACL injuries--will become an industry standard in the next five years.
“Lateral-heel release is going to be universal,” says KneeBinding chairman John Springer-Miller. “Over time, every (binding company) is going to have to do it. It will start being a legal problem. It’s a major additional safety benefit. It’s a game changer.”
Executives from two binding companies were reluctant to go on the record discussing another competitor’s comments. But they called the prediction “highly speculative” and “very debatable.” “He is making a very smart statement from a marketing standpoint for his brand,” conceded one.
It can get lonely leading a solo safety charge, but Springer-Miller says that in its third season, Stowe, Vt.-based KneeBinding has reached 1,000 units in annual sales and is projecting to be carried in about 300 shops for 2011-12.
KneeBinding features the patented PureLateral heel release, going beyond the standard lateral release toe and forward release heel in targeting the “Phantom Foot” ACL injury.
“In reality, when your hips and knees are bent and you catch an inside edge, the knee is where the force goes,” Springer-Miller says. “The only way to relieve that is for the heel to release sideways.” Research indicates that about 70 percent of the 70,000 annual ACL injuries are caused by the so-called Phantom Foot.
Other binding companies have invested millions of dollars working on lateral-heel release, but have been stymied by pre-release issues solved by KneeBinding, Springer-Miller says. He welcomes the opportunity to discuss his patent in detail with binding companies--or even for them to develop technology on their own. “One of the major companies will come out with a lateral heel release product and that will threaten the others. It’ll be a requirement to be competitive. You can’t compete without it,” he says.
ACL injuries are painful, costly, onerous affairs, not just for the patient but for employers, especially ski resorts. Research indicates that associated costs for a single ACL injury can reach six figures in health care, workmen’s compensation and insurance premiums.
“Ski resorts need to be looking at this (for their on-mountain personnel). It’s awful for whoever has to pay the bill, as well as for the injured,” he says. Springer-Miller even sees a time when insurance coverage for on-mountain personnel skiing on bindings with or without lateral release heels is set up similar to that for smokers and non-smokers. Many resorts are already requiring on-mountain personnel to wear helmets while on duty, he says.
Springer-Miller grew up in New England in a skiing family: He ski raced as a junior and his father was an editor for SKI Magazine and the owner of a San Francisco ski shop in the late 1950s. After starting out in theater and TV production after attending the University of New Hampshire, Springer-Miller was introduced to computers while working as an entertainment writer for Gannett in the early 1980s, just as it was launching USA Today. Issued a Tandy 100 computer to file stories, he started to write his own programs -- and never stopped.
Eventually, his Stowe-based Springer-Miller Systems specialized in developing history-based, resort-guest management systems, rising to a worldwide market-leading position. The system is in use at resorts such as Pebble Beach, the Bellagio and Intrawest. “We invented customer relationship management for hotels,” he says.
Springer-Miller sold the company a half-dozen years ago and began devoting his resources full time to KneeBinding about two years ago. The outfit is housed in the same New England saltbox along the Stowe access road in which Springer-Miller Systems began. The chairman’s inner circle includes George Couperthwait, the former Rossignol product executive who is helping to steer the company.
In the pitch to retail shops, Springer-Miller says buyers and even sales staff quickly grasp the lateral-heel release story. They are, at times, challenged by the big picture implications.
“It’s tricky, because (they) are telling (consumers) this is safer. In effect, all the other (bindings) are condemned. Will I be liable for selling someone else’s binding? They are also telling (customers) that skiing is dangerous. And (KneeBinding) doesn’t suddenly make it safe. There are still a lot of ways to get hurt.” In the end, Springer-Miller says he needs to sell shops on the concept that the product “will perform better and retain better.” The binding did earn a Gear of the Year award from SKI Magazine and a Skier’s Choice honor from Powder.
Springer-Miller likes to draw on the air bag analogy to describe the KneeBinding challenge and opportunity. “You never want to see your air bag. You never want to use it. It’s the same with KneeBinding. And it’s the only product that can do it.
“I got in this because I want to change the sport. Unless we go away, (the lateral-heel release story) will keep growing.” --Andy Bigford
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