New to the outdoors: The foldable Oru Kayak looks to break down barriers

In this reoccurring series, SNEWS identifies and highlights industry start-up brands vying for a place on outdoor specialty retail shelves.
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One of the defining points of outdoor specialty retail is that it is where customers can go to discover what’s truly new. Local shop owners are the ones who often take the risk to bring in a small, start-up brand, differentiating themselves from the big boys. In this reoccurring series, SNEWS will identify and highlight the new kids on the outdoor block vying for a place on those shelves.

Lightweight, packable, and streamlined designs have recently made their mark in backpack, footwear, and apparel categories — now those qualities are steering the course in paddle sports with an origamikayak.

The Oru Kayak (MSRP $1,195) begins in the shape of a box — a 32”-by-13”-by-28 size that slides smoothly into the Oru Pack (MSRP $250; separately sold), with two shoulder straps for easy carry. From its rectangular form, the boat unfolds into a single sheet of corrugated plastic that then snaps with a strap-and-buckle system into a 12-foot, 26-pound kayak, in just five minutes.

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“Every time we unfold it we attract a crowd,” said co-founder and CCO Roberto Gutierrez. “It’s a very clever design, and every time you see kids’ faces light up, or when people see a photo on their phone, there is always this wow factor.”

The innovative design was sparked by San Francisco based architect Anton Willis, co-founder and CEO of Oru Kayak. Willis grew up kayaking and canoeing on the lakes and rivers in northern California, relocating to the south to earn his master of architecture from the University of California at Berkeley. He began urban kayaking in the Bay, but with the limited space of his studio apartment, Willis was forced to send his kayak back to the barn on his parent’s property. Then, an article that Willis read in the New Yorker — titled “The Origami Lab,”— triggered the question: Can I make a kayak that folds up like paper? As it turns out, he could.

From square one to the first prototype, the foldable kayak came to life in just five months. Willis and co-founder Ardy Sobhani launched a Kickstarter campaign in November 2012. The fundraising goal was set at $80,000 — and the amount was reached in less than 6 hours. After a month, the product had raised close to $500,000 in pre-orders from more than 700 backers.

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The backgrounds of all three company founders overlap with a passion for the outdoors and an intuition for design. While Willis was an architect, Gutierrez was a professional surf kayaker for five years and carries a PhD in language and communicative disorders from San Diego State University and the University of California at San Diego. Sobhani studied economics and visual art at the California College of the Arts, earning his MBA in design strategy.

Oru Kayak reached the production mark of 2,000 kayaks in May 2014, which are assembled at a local California facility and shipped all over the world. While the design was inspired by the challenge of storage space, many other appeals for a foldable kayak design have surfaced. The product’s central goal is to chip away the challenges of an average kayak in order to connect more people with the outdoors.

“[The Oru Kayak] lowers barriers to access: you can now take a kayak where you’ve never taken it before,” Gutierrez said. “It’s easy to store, easy to assemble, and the product has always been about getting people to explore and experience the water. Most cities in the U.S. have a large body of water, and transporting and storing a kayak in those places is very difficult.” Plus, at $1,195, the price-point is comparatively accessible for a kayak.

Furthermore, the hipness and the aesthetic beauty of the design attracts customers and onlookers alike.

“The magic of assembling it is unique, and it glows if you put light inside of it, so we’ve made it cool as well,” Gutierrez described.=

By the numbers, 40 percent of the Kickstarter supporters who purchased an Oru Kayak had never kayaked before. While some of those purchases could have been gifts from non-paddlers to paddlers, the beta does indicate that the product could be a welcoming entry-gate for first-time paddlers. Simultaneously, the kayak’s body — a double-layered polypropylene material — is rated to withstand 20,000 fold cycles and is sturdily designed to handle Class 3 river runs and surfing in the open ocean. In other words, it’s across-the-board suitable from beginners to experienced kayakers.

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To date, sales have been solely direct-to-consumer, but retailers are reaching out and the brand ships its first boat to REI in May. The team is continuing to brainstorm outside the box for the evolution of the company, and for the product designs.

“We have a bunch of things on the drawing board right now, and as I mentioned, our goal is to provide products that break barriers,” Gutierrez said. “If it’s a kayak or another product that breaks barriers, that’s fine, too.”

--Morgan Tilton

Does Oru Kayak have what it takes to make it in your specialty outdoor retail store? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page. Or, email us about another newcomer to the outdoors we should feature here.

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