San Francisco, CA
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Foldable Kayak
For CDO Anton Willis, great things do come in small packages, like a collapsible kayak inspired by origami.
Frustrated with the lack of suitable space and storage options for his kayak in his small apartment, CDO Anton Willis concluded that there weren’t any favorable options for people who enjoy kayaking regularly and simply don’t have space or storage to house one. Inspired by an article in New Yorker magazine about practical uses for origami, Willis contemplated whether if he could use traditional origami techniques to solve the kayak storage problem.
"I started out by just folding sheets of paper, creating a bunch of prototypes to figure out the sequence of folds and creases that would allow the kayak to fold down into a size that was easy to travel with and store in a small apartment," says Willis. "But it would also have to perform as well as a traditional kayak when it was unfolded. I eventually moved on to folding full-size kayaks out of corrugated plastic sheets." After five years of prototyping, Willis met the company’s current CEO Ardy Sobhani and together, they launched their new product on Kickstarter.
Willis’s architecture background helped to design the folds of the kayak, and how it would transition from a folded box to a functional kayak. "Origami, a seemingly simple technology that is already used in a variety of industries from gigantic space telescopes to tiny medical devices, will only continue to grow as people keep experimenting with practical uses for origami," says Wills.
Using die cutting tools, injection molds, and an extrusion process, Willis, and his team are able to manufacture both small and large scale folding kayaks and fittings. Specialized materials include a custom extruded plastic that has a 10 year UV treatment that makes up the main body of the kayak. This plastic is also rated to 20K fold cycles and is completely recyclable. "We make a fully functional, high-performance kayak that just happens to fold down to a very portable size, which means we’re in a unique position where we’re competing against both traditional hard-shell kayaks, and inflatable kayaks," says Willis. "ORU Kayaks compare very favorably with both groups." At 26 pounds ORU Kayaks are lightweight, quick, and easy to set up. According to Willis, they are also are faster, and more precise on the water than most inflatable kayaks. Which in return, makes for a unique product that’s easy to travel with, transport, store, and even carry.
Not only does ORU Kayaks focus on working and innovating both on the product and marketing level, but the company also works on becoming a reliable source of information and answering questions about kayaking. "We’re working to not just sell kayaks, but also to help beginners who want to learn more about kayaking, as well as experienced paddlers looking for information on new areas, gear, and trips," says Willis.
The company teamed up with local leaders in a small island community in Indonesia to explore opportunities for kayaking and climbing on the islands. ORU Kayaks have successfully helped set climbing routes and went as far as to supply several ORU Kayaks to kickstart the ecotourism operations there. "They’ve been fighting against mining and logging companies for years, trying to protect their mountains," says Willis. "While they’ve succeeded in protecting their land, they’ve been left trying to figure out how to fill that hole in their economy. Now we’ve released a limited edition Indonesia Edition folding kayak, as well as decals and scarves that we’ll be selling to help raise awareness for their story, as well as donating some of the proceeds to those people."
The success of the kayak design has done more for the company than simply produce a compact, foldable kayak. It has led to the company continuing to network with people, and use their product to help people connect and get on the water.
Needs: "Renting or owning space in the Bay area can be an expensive investment, "It would be great if the Bay Area could lower its cost of living," says Willis.
Challenges: Attracting beginners as well as experienced kayakers into ORU Kayaks is the biggest challenge for Willis and his team. "We can reach people, we can tell them our story, but we need to be getting people into the boats in large numbers and showing them that it performs like a traditional kayak, but can be much more convenient to use and storage is the real challenge," says Willis.
Opportunities: ORU Kayak will be releasing updated boats and expanding into the Australian market. "Our big word for 2018 is families," says Willis. "We are hoping to offer a more family-friendly product by the end of the year, but that’s all I can say right now!"