Before attending LeWeb11 in Paris to talk about start-ups and entrepreneurial passion, I was so lucky to catch up with Chris Blakely, the head of Petzl's training and research centre in Crolles, near Grenoble. For those who know and love Petzl, you likely know Crolles. And, I'm sure you know what incredible innovation takes place there, but for others, please take a look at this video to start with.
In the Petzl entrance lobby, there are many interesting artifacts, photos and facts about the company started by expert caver Fernand Petzl in 1975. You could spend hours there alone, but most our time was spent at the amazing research facility known as V.axess.
At V.axess Chris showed us three full-size mannequins dressed for action and sporting Petzl equipment which demonstrate the three product areas where they focus. The first is the caver, who may descend many hundreds of meters DOWN with a primary objective of exploration. The second is the climber who belays another climber, who would go UP into the mountains or up a rock gym climbing wall with Petzl equipment like the very famous "GRIGRI," invented 20 years ago.
The third mannequin has the most robust equipment, most protective clothing and with two independent systems, would be a representative of their industrial customer -- rescue and safety personnel or other industry workers who need to use harnesses and heavier equipment to do everything from helicopter rescues to industrial maintenance of those large windmills which dot the landscape.
You may notice the rope thickness and weight of the equipment goes from lighter to heavier as you go from caver to climber to industry safety personnel.
Equally exciting was the V.axess test facility. It may look like one big climbing gym to you with one wall full of holds any climber would love to spend the day ascending, but there are many more types of testing and training that take place there. In fact, some is so leading edge, it's confidential and I can't write about it.
Other areas in the V.axess facility include simulated "burning buildings" where firefighters can practice quick exits using Petzl equipment when all other routes are unavailable. You'll be glad to know that Petzl will not sell that equipment without first getting a commitment from the firefighting team to training.
As Chris spoke with me, I got a better idea of what he and his team work on: innovation of current and classic products, improving something as well known the karabiner or GRIGRI, as well as introducing new solutions driven by their team and current clients' needs. One of the most important "products" they provide, is training to their distributor network, who then in turn train those who sell Petzl equipment.
He walked us over to the main lobby where the original handmade equipment is on display. Chris showed us how the original Petzl products were handmade (and many still are) and pointed out the devices created by their founder to manufacture karibiners and other equipment. We could have spent many more hours learning about this fascinating "start-up" where a young man who loved exploring caves turned his passion into a great company known for innovation, adventure and safety.