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The Fold-Up Boat

June 12, 2013
by Pat Joseph
A kayak

Anton Willis reinvents the kayak for urban dwellers.

Tell people you’ve invented “the world’s first origami kayak,” and you’re likely to be met with wry grins and chuckles. The mind runs to images of paddlers astride giant paper gewgaws, sodden and sinking in the surf. But, rest assured, the Oru Kayak is no joke: It’s a sleek, honest-to-god kayak that folds together in minutes from a single sheet of corrugated plastic, then folds again into a carrying case about the size and shape of an overstuffed garment bag.

The inventor of this newfangled watercraft is 36-year-old Anton Willis, M.Arch. ’07, an introspective man with close-cropped mutton-chop sideburns framing his boyish face like whiskered parentheses. I met with him last January at TechShop San Francisco, a 17,000-square-foot workshop space that feels like it could be the de facto headquarters of the city’s burgeoning Maker culture. There, amid the clang and thrum of machinery—band saws, MIG welders, TIG welders, plasma cutters, you name it (not to mention the hum of workstations running with the latest in 3D modeling software)—he explained to me the genesis of Oru Kayak.

The initial inspiration, he said, came from a New Yorker article he chanced upon about the latest advances in the art and science—yes, science—of origami. Forget peace cranes and cootie catchers; the principles of paper folding are now being incorporated into the designs of things like heart stents and space telescopes. Cutting-edge origamists now use specially designed software to aid in their designs, and employ advanced techniques such as curvilinear folds.

As a longtime kayaker with no car and an apartment too small to keep a boat—he’d had to put his fiberglass boat in storage—Willis said the article made him think: “What if I could build a kayak that would fold up like origami?” Straightaway, he set about sketching designs, making scale models, and eventually constructing full-size prototypes. The first of those, which folded like an accordion, sank “ingloriously” in Berkeley’s Aquatic Park, and so it was back to the drawing board. Some 25 prototypes and countless shop hours later, he now has a market-ready product and a new company to manufacture and sell it.

Oru Kayak officially launched on Kickstarter, the popular crowdfunding website, in November, quickly surpassing the target of $80,000. Before the campaign ended in December, they had 473 boat orders and $443,806 in pledges. Barring unforeseen problems, the first run of 200 kayaks should by now be in purchasers’ hands—or, who knows, tucked in a closet or stashed under a bed.

As with any new product, of course, there have been kinks to work out. I paddled a prototype Oru recently in the Oakland Estuary with Roberto Gutierrez, the company’s product tester. He pointed to a small crack in the coaming around the cockpit. “We’re talking to our supplier about sourcing a more durable material for that,” he said. Likewise, he told me, they were still searching for a paddle they could confidently put their name on, one that breaks down to four sections and fits inside the carrying case. Good thing, too. When I tried an eskimo roll, the demo paddle I was using (not, I’ve been assured, an Oru paddle) came apart at the middle, and half of it sank to the bottom of the estuary. A shortcoming like that could leave a company up the proverbial creek.

In name, at least, folding kayaks are nothing new. There have been “folding” or, more accurately, collapsible models at least since the venerable Klepper Faltboote first appeared in Bavaria more than a century ago. Modeled after the traditional skin-on-frame boats of the Inuit and Eskimo people, the Klepper and its kin employ a rubberized fabric hull stretched across a wooden or metal-alloy skeleton. As a class, collapsible boats tend to be exceptionally seaworthy and also rather costly—the least expensive model of Klepper retails for about $3,000. On Kickstarter, the first run of Orus went for $800.

In addition to the difference in cost, the Oru Kayak is also lighter (just 25 pounds, half the weight of the lightest Klepper) and more compact than collapsible boats. The monocoque hull also makes the craft faster and more responsive than skin-on-frame competitors.

Will the Oru prove to be durable? Time will tell. For now, Gutierrez stressed that the Coroplast hull material is rated to 20,000 folds. That’s a lot of boating.

This ingenious kayak wasn’t Willis’s first success as an innovator. Trained as an architect, he earned his master’s from Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design in 2007. His thesis focused on ways in which the built environment could respond to the tides and lunar phases. For millennia, he said, architects designed with the sun in mind. He wondered what might happen if they were more mindful of the moon. From that grew an idea he called Lunar-Resonant Streetlamps—streetlights designed to dim and brighten in response to the availability of moonlight, not only saving energy but also reintroducing urban dwellers to the wonders of the night sky.

The streetlight proposal won a design award from Metropolis magazine, and Willis used the cash prize as seed money to start Civil Twilight, a design collective he formed with his wife, business partner, and fellow Wurster alum Kate Lydon, M.Arch. ’07, to “explore the intersections between nature and urbanism.” Another, even more esoteric (yet strangely down-to-earth) idea of Willis’s is the Mycofarmhouse, in which derelict wooden buildings would be seeded with fungus spores, then left to grow mushrooms and rot, ultimately reducing to compost and “enriching the site for more conventional urban farming.”

In many ways, the Oru Kayak is an extension of that “nature and urbanism” ethos. As Willis wrote in a brief essay in Metropolis about his new boats: “Water is a major, undervalued public space in cities. Most cities are built on water, and it’s legally open and free—but inaccessible to those of us with apartments and small (or no) cars.”

Even now, with his company off to an impressive start, Willis seems more the earnest activist than gung-ho entrepreneur. He can talk ably and at length about supply chains and inventory and even the importance of branding, but you sense his heart’s not entirely in the conversation—until he hits on something that really matters to him, like the fact that his boats are 100 percent recyclable or that they’ll be made entirely in California. No surprise, then, that the entrepreneur he most admires is Patagonia, Inc., founder Yvon Chouinard, a man whose business manifesto is titled “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman.”

Gutierrez says about Willis: “For Anton, it’s not so much about selling stuff; it’s about getting people in boats and exploring the world around them. If selling Oru Kayaks can accomplish that, I think he’s happy.”

Pat Joseph is Executive Editor of California.
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