Montana’s incredible access to recreation has always been known as a great attractant for tourists. Turns out, it’s a pretty amazing way to capture some of the country’s brightest business visionaries.
Will Ritter is one of the entrepreneurs lured to Montana by the promise of deep snow, steep lines, and open horizons. He was born in Minnesota, and remembers getting his first snowboard in seventh grade as a life changing moment:
“ I honestly don’t believe there’s another town of this size, with such great access to recreation, with a university spinning off so many businesses…between the lifestyle and talent here, there’s no better place to be.”
“I loved it. I couldn’t get enough of it. Even if I couldn’t get to the local ski hills, I was always out building jumps in the backyard.”
Will combined that love of snowboarding with another of his favorite pastimes - building stuff, like skate ramps and wakeboards. Upon graduating from high school he entered the Physics program at nearby Hamline University, because that was the curriculum that came closest to satisfying his interest in inventing and making things. After his sophomore year at Hamline he found himself wanting bigger and better recreational opportunities to take advantage of in his free time; particularly better snowboarding. So, in 1999 he came out to Bozeman, Montana with some friends over spring break to check out what this university/ski town had to offer:
“My mind was blown with the how good the riding at Bridger Bowl and Big Sky were…it didn’t take long for me to know this is where I wanted to be.”
As soon as Will got home, he applied to Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman and earned his Bachelor’s of Science degree in Physics in 2000. He went on to earn his Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from MSU in 2004. After graduation, Will was hired at a local product and industrial design firm, Strategix Vision, where he developed everything from dog toys to scientific instruments. The job was a great learning experience that gave Will a hands-on understanding of the product design and development process from end-to-end. Will may have stayed there as an employee for several years, but in 2005 love once again changed the course of his life when his met his now-wife (and Spark R&D’s CFO) Becca - who happened to be a strong backcountry skier. As he quickly learned, the equipment available to backcountry skiers was far superior to the equipment available to backcountry snowboarders at the time:
“Becca and her friends would be cruising up a skin track, just chatting away, while I was sweating profusely and hating it on my snowshoes.”
In order to keep up, Will invested in a splitboard and some climbing skins. The new gear was a game changer for Will, but he knew from the start the splitboard would be much more efficient and perform better if it had its own binding system (versus the somewhat arduous process of adapting a regular binding to work with a splitboard). He once again combined his skills and passion for snowboarding, and in spring of 2005 developed the first prototype for a splitboard-specific binding with his own money. When he was satisfied with how the bindings looked and performed, he started posting photos on the popular backcountry forum site, splitboard.com. The response to his photos was impressive; Will immediately started getting inquiries from people who wanted to buy the bindings. That demand forced Will’s hand at starting his own business, and in 2006 he jumped out on his own as a full-time independent contractor under the Spark R&D banner.
Like many entrepreneurs in early stage ventures, the splitboard bindings were largely a side project while Will paid the bills with engineering consulting work. Along the way he sought valuable business counseling and attended business workshops hosted by local economic development group, Prospera Business Network. When it came time to expand into a space that could accommodate Spark R&D’s growing manufacturing and inventory capacity, Will turned to Montana Community Development Corporation, where the staff was very helpful in helping him secure financing for this first-of-its-kind venture.
In 2011, Spark R&D reached the point where they were able to minimize consulting work, and made manufacturing split board bindings their primary focus. Today, the company employs 30 people during peak manufacturing season and 20 people year-round. They recently purchased an injection molding machine that allows them to make many of the plastic binding components formerly manufactured in Asia at their headquarters near the MSU campus. According to Will, Spark R&D’s Bozeman location is one of its key advantages:
“I’ve been all over the country, and I honestly don’t believe there’s another town of this size, with such great access to recreation, with a university spinning off so many businesses…between the lifestyle and talent here, there’s no better place to be.”
As of today, Will’s success with Spark R&D has earned him recognition from - and the opportunity to collaborate with - snowboarding industry giants like Burton, as well as some hometown accolades. In 2014, Will was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Prospera; the organization that helped him learn the ropes of starting a business venture nearly a decade ago.