June 9, 2022
From the Human Performance Lab to Lululemon: Changing the game for athletic shoes
Four years. Data from over one million Volumental foot scans. Countless rounds of testing. Made for women first. That’s just some of how Lululemon describes its new footwear while hinting at the expertise, research and development needed to make its latest innovations.
After more than two decades as an apparel retail giant, Lululemon entered the footwear market in 2022, revealing a collection of athletic shoes designed specifically for women. It considered the biomechanics of a woman’s foot as well as fit, comfort and balance to engineer these new shoes and set itself up for a new direction for its business.
At the forefront of Lululemon’s growing shoe division is triple-alumnus Dr. Colin Firminger, BSc (Eng)’12, MSc’16, PhD’21. The biomedical engineering graduate joined Lululemon in 2022 as a biomechanist and engineer lead to help it develop the new footwear line.
Firminger applies biomechanical principles to footwear design, such as observing runners in a lab and measuring the movement and forces they generate.
He and his team are based out of Portland, Ore., separated from Lululemon’s Vancouver headquarters. Firminger says that separation is almost like working at a startup, but with the resources of a large company.
“It’s like a highly technical playground we can use to develop equipment and every kind of prototypes we want, but at the same time being under the umbrella of a well-known company. It's a really good mix of the two,” Firminger says.
Before joining Lululemon, he conducted research at the Faculty of Kinesiology’s Human Performance Lab as well as the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.
Renowned for mechanical fatigue research
Firminger has also consulted with the Canadian Sport Institute and Under Armour, and worked with Adidas, Robbins Sport Surfaces, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and General Electric (GE) Healthcare on various biomechanical research projects.
He received the Governor General’s Gold Medal (Doctoral) at UCalgary’s 2021 November Convocation, recognizing his PhD research on patellar tendon strains that was supported by a grant from the NBA and GE Healthcare and looked at ways to minimize injury risk through footwear and sport surfaces.
“The time Dr. Firminger spent in the lab were some of our most productive years in terms of research output and impact,” says Dr. Brent Edwards, PhD, who supervised Firminger’s PhD. The Edwards lab is internationally renowned for their work on the mechanical fatigue of bone and stress fractures and athletes, and they applied these same principles and expertise to tendinopathy.
Firminger’s work included basic experiments of tendon tissue that enhanced the understanding of tendon loading and damage accumulation, and whole-body biomechanical testing to improve sports performance and decrease injury risk. “In my experience, very few scientists can perform this type of interdisciplinary work so well,” Edwards says.
It’s that kind of unique experience and specialized knowledge, along with connections developed at UCalgary, that led Firminger to Lululemon; he learned of the job from a postdoctoral scholar with whom he had a good relationship. Now he’s starting his career at Lululemon (founded by UCalgary alumnus Chip Wilson, BA’80) to help it change the game for athletic shoes.
“Starting in grad school, it was my goal to get a job in the athletic industry,” says Firminger. “It's like a dream come true to not only get a job out of a PhD, but a job that I actually really enjoy and am well suited to do.”
Following the launch of the women’s ‘blissfeel running shoe,’ Lululemon is expecting to launch two more styles of activity-specific performance shoes for women as well as a slide this year.