Are you keen to explore the great outdoors, but find that following a hiking track or a ski trail on a map is a rather unsatisfying experience? It’s not always easy to get a feel for how steep a hill really is, if it’s worth going over that ridge in the distance, or even what the risk of an avalanche is in a certain area. David Cowell and Misha Goupaul certainly found this lack of information frustrating, which is why they set up FATMAP – a 3D ultra-high resolution mapping app that goes out of its way to really let you understand the terrain you are exploring, whether you are on skis, a mountain bike or just in a sturdy pair of walking boots.

“FATMAP harnesses the incredible graphics power of cutting-edge gaming technology to bring beautiful, ultra-high resolution landscape models to life in 3D”


fatmap-mapping-david-cowellThey split the work between Bristol, London and Chamonix, so we caught up with co-founder and CTO David (pictured right) to find out more about how the app came to be, how it’s being used and how he finds running a tech startup from the South West.

TechSPARK: What is FATMAP and what does it do?

David Cowell: FATMAP is the world’s best mapping platform for outdoor activities. It harnesses the incredible graphics power of cutting-edge gaming technology to bring beautiful, ultra-high resolution landscape models to life in 3D with fluid performance.

Using innovative mapping and infographics we add all of the information and functionality that outdoor experts and enthusiasts really need, based on a deep understanding of those activities from the inside. To that we add expert local knowledge and live data to give you the ultimate tool to help you safely get the most out of your outdoor adventures.

FATMAP overview: You can get a feel for the app in the video above


We initially launched as a skiing app on mobile, but have recently expanded our range to hiking, mountain-biking and mountaineering. Next we will be launching an integrated browser-based version of the application, to allow our users to discover, plan, manage, and re-live their adventures on the big screen, with the ability to access outdoor maps of anywhere in the world.

fatmap-terrain-intelligenceTS: Where did the idea come from?

DC: I’ve always been obsessed with maps, to the extent that I built 3D models of the Lake District out of plywood and plaster at the age of 11, but the initial ideas for FATMAP first occurred when I was living in Chamonix in 2002.

I was doing a lot of off-piste skiing, and started to realise how poor the existing maps were for helping an off-piste skier to understand the terrain well enough to allow them to find the best lines to ski. So I started to think about what you really want to know as an off-piste skier.

Essentially it all comes down to the shape of the terrain – the angle, aspect, altitude and position of a particular slope, and the way that those slopes connect together to form a logical route from A to B that is fun and safe to ski. While a traditional contour map shows all of those elements to some degree, they are at least one level of abstraction away – so you can work out the gradient of a slope from how close the contours are, but it doesn’t tell you directly, or very accurately.

So I manually created some maps showing the gradient and fall-line (aspect) of the slopes at the Grands Montets ski area, and that’s when I realised I was on to something. It was suddenly far easier to see which bits of the mountain were going to be skiable, and which weren’t. I tried to figure out how to make a business out of the idea at the time, and although it didn’t happen then, the idea was always at the back of my mind, and stewing away over the years.

fatmap-ceo-misha-gopaulIn 2010 I met my co-founder Misha (pictured left) on an exploratory ski-mountaineering trip to Albania that I organised for the Eagle Ski Club. It was a great trip, and we realised we were kindred spirits in our search for adventures in the mountains. He was already a successful tech entrepreneur, and was looking to sell his first business and do something else, and I was a software engineer trying to find something more interesting to do. By this time I’d resolved the idea into something based around high-resolution 3D landscape models, and one evening in the car on the way to Dorset for a climbing weekend I mentioned the idea to him.

“Within 20 minutes all of the fundamental concepts of what FATMAP has become were conceived”


He said, “why don’t you put it on a smart phone”? It seems completely obvious in hindsight, but that was the lightbulb moment for me. We had one of those super-intense conversations where the ideas just crackled, and within 20 minutes all of the fundamental concepts of what FATMAP has become were conceived.

TS: What are the potential uses for the maps you generate?

DC: We started out buildings maps for the activities that we’re passionate about, but the platform we’ve developed for that can essentially render landscapes with fluid performance for models of any size and scale. So for any use case where there is value in the accurate and realistic visualisation of a landscape and the ability to add contextual information and tools to that model, FATMAP can potentially be valuable. And where there is particular value in being able to get that capability to the widest audience, through mobile and web experiences, without the need for expensive desktop software, the stronger the potential. Once you start thinking about that, the possible uses are almost limitless.

“One future area that is particularly interesting for FATMAP is in disaster response”


Apart from many different sports, where the physical environment around you at various scales really matters to what you’re doing (riding, off-road driving, snow-mobiling, kayaking, diving, golf, para-gliding, climbing, etc), there are a myriad of industrial uses in sectors such as mining, oil & gas, infrastructure & construction, environmental management, monitoring & risk assessment, archaeology & heritage, military & security, and many others.


FATMAP knowledge: Image overlays help you
understand the landscape you are exploring


One area that is particularly interesting is in disaster response. After speaking at the annual DigitalGlobe (the world’s largest earth observation satellite company) conference in London, Misha was invited to speak at the UN in Geneva, and later at Guadalajara in Mexico at conferences on global disaster response. The possibility of getting the latest information out to both operatives and the local population in the context of an instantly comprehensible model of the affected area on mobile and web could potentially be transformative for effectively managing various humanitarian crises and natural disasters.

TS: What successes have you had?

DC: In a sense, to me the key success is that we’ve actually managed to build a fantastic piece of technology that allows you to see the world in a way that you’ve never seen it before. I still get a thrill when I load up a map of a new area and I can explore it as if I’m an eagle flying through that beautiful landscape.

But as a business what matters is that you can get that message out to world, and that people understand it. And the response has been fantastic. We now have over 120,000 registered users, and many of them genuinely love the product and what it enables them to do. And we’re swamped with requests from the world’s best outdoor athletes to use FATMAP to help them both plan their adventures, and bring the storytelling of those adventures to life.

fatmap-wins-login-startup-competitionWe’ve also had some success at various start-up pitch competitions, including being runner-up from over 200 entries at WebSummit in Dublin in 2015, and winner at the LOGIN Tech Conference in Vilnius in 2015 [pictured right, where you can see FATMAP’s Head of 3D Paulius Liekis, accepting the prize], and the ExA-Summit Tech Conference in Taipei in 2016.

And of course raising the finance to enable us to build the incredibly talented and committed team we have now, that will really give us the scope to attack the next stage of where we want to go with the business.

TS: What was the biggest problem to overcome when setting up Fatmap?

DC: I sometimes wish I’d thought of a simpler business to start! What we’ve taken on is hugely complex as well as very ambitious, so it’s in the nature of the game that we have a myriad of challenging problems to solve, both at a technical level as well as the business strategy and operational levels.

“We’re still a small company, but we have employees based in 8 different locations in 6 countries, and 5 time zones!”


With that kind of complexity, the problem of financing the business becomes a real balancing act. In the early days we had no option but to self-finance, but unless you have very deep pockets the scope for that is limited. So there’s a constant tension between building enough to convince people that you’re capable of moving to the next level, but not biting off more than you can chew so that you run of money before you’ve proved anything.

But I think the hardest part is finding and hiring the right people, and by that I really mean the best people. It’s not easy, and we’re still learning. And the other key organisational challenge for us is that is that we’re distributed across the globe – we’re still a small company, but we have employees based in 8 different locations in 6 countries, and 5 time zones!

TS: What aspect of Fatmap is carried out in Bristol?

fatmap-skiing-routesDC: All of the mapping operations are in Bristol, which is where I’m based. That means management of the whole process of creating our maps, from negotiating deals with the data providers, through all of the complex processes of building and improving those models and maps, to coordinating the external army of expert local content contributors to create the rich guidebook content.

“I think Bristol is a fantastic place to create a tech start-up!”


TS: Is it a good place to create a tech startup?

I think Bristol is a fantastic place to create a tech start-up! I’ve only been here for 4 years, but I wish I’d moved (from London) sooner. The city has an incredible creative energy, from a really strong grass-roots environmental movement, through media, to the tech scene.

I think the city’s got a really unique sense of identity, which means that people are here because they want to be, and that means they want to get on with making the most of their life, here. It’s obviously got fantastic universities, and it exerts a powerful draw of talent from London as the combination of opportunity and quality of life here is pretty much unbeatable.

TS: Are you impressed by the tech scene in the South West? Why?

DC: I’ve never worked for anyone else in Bristol, and as a first-time entrepreneur with a business partner not based here, it took me a while to really get engaged with the tech scene in Bristol. But as soon as we started attracting external interest and starting to look outwards for collaborators, that changed.

And everything that I’ve come across so far has been great. There’s a real sense of possibility, and an undercurrent of creative energy that’s down-to-earth, yet hugely ambitious. It’s refreshingly different from the tech scene in London – people are open, and interested, and collaborative, and just want to get things done.

TS: Are there any other tech companies or organisations in the area that impress you?

DC: Among the first contacts I made in Bristol through FATMAP was with a small drone operations company run by Andrew Blogg. They’ve now expanded to become Future Aerial, which is a really innovative idea around building local and national networks of specialist drone operators to provide an integrated drone survey service. We still haven’t actually done anything with them yet, but I’m sure we will at some point.

I also had very good vibes from Mobile Pie, a small mobile games and entertainment dev studio, when we were looking to outsource some dev work, though we decided to do it in-house in the end.

Then a very interesting meeting with the Oracle Public Cloud team in Bristol led on to an introduction to Zubr VR, a really cool little company that do all sorts of innovative AR and VR projects in different fields. We’re doing a small collaboration with them to build VR models of our mountains for demos in ski resorts.

And, of course, the universities are critical to the supply of fresh talent and ideas in tech. We’ve had fantastic interns from both, so I’m keen to start forging some stronger links there.

TS: What’s next for Fatmap? And can people get involved?

fatmap-scotland-mapsDC: I think the future is genuinely really exciting. We’ve clarified our strategy in the last few months and we’re pushing ahead now to try to become the mapping platform for the outdoors, worldwide. We’re in the process of expanding our mapping to global coverage, expanding the range of activities we cover, integrating our products across mobile and web, and fundamentally re-vamping the design of the user experience to better meet their needs.

So we’re growing our team in various areas (and you can find details of current opportunities on our website), but we’re always delighted to talk to anyone who’s passionate about the activities we love, or mapping & technology, or where they meet. Just drop us a line at!

Thanks to David for his time. You can see more about the company on the FATMAP website or by following them on Twitter here: @fatmap. And while you are at it, how about giving us a follow too: @techsparkuk