If the WaveJet powered watercraft sinks, it won't be the inventor's loss. It will be ours.
With additional reporting from Alex Dalenberg.
NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- It took 10 long years for Mike Railey to build a better mousetrap. But in these distracted digital days, nobody seems to care.
"There were times I was just so down," Railey tells me, "I had no idea what to do."
It would be easy to dismiss Railey, a lifelong surfer and former mortgage broker, as just another tinkerer with too much time his hands. He has none of the geek credentials common among today's tech entrepreneurs. He didn't get his start in a Silicon Valley garage. He didn't go to Harvard. He can't code software.
"I'm just a normal person. I didn't know what I was doing," Railey says. "I had a secret laboratory in the basement and I'd stay there until all hours of the night, until I got it to work."
What Railey has gotten to work is something real -- and really extraordinary -- called WaveJet. It's essentially a powered surfboard that any mortal can use to putter out to a breaking wave. With the energy the surfer saves plus the oomph in the board, that wave becomes much easier to ride. Having spent a lifetime bobbing around in one watercraft or another, I can assure you the WaveJet is not merely just a motorized surfboard; it's a battery-powered, remote-controlled modular aquatic propulsion pod that can be dropped not just into surfboards, but also into kayaks, life rafts or, really, anything that floats. Think of it as a smartphone for the sea.
And with its 45-minute continuous run time, 7 mph speed and idiotproof remote control, the WaveJet can transform the way people use the ocean just like ski lifts transformed the way folks use mountains.
But if Railey's experience is any indication, his dream raises dangerous questions about the true cost of our grand digital delusion.
We may have not only wasted trillions chasing after a doomed virtual economy, but then doubled our losses by not investing in the real businesses we should have in the first place.
Real-world innovation, real-world struggles
Railey's long ride in oblivion is a sobering example of what happens when the lure of the virtual overcomes the reality of the practical. An early morning San Diego surfer dude, Railey handled more than a hundred loans per week for SoCal homebuyers at the dawn at the millennium. And like many longboarders, he dreamed of a ride that would ride itself.
But in a Web economy dominated by duds such as American Online(:AOL) and Yahoo!(:YHOO), no investors would back such an early stage idea based on something real. Unfazed, Railey began spending about $2,000 per test board -- and there were many -- prowling local hobby shops for parts. Helmut Goestl remembers how he walked into his Dymond Modelsport hobby shop in San Diego.
"Mike burned through a lot of prototypes because the salt water was ruining his motors," Goastl says.
By 2002, in spite of it all, Railey built a working powered board.
"The thing worked for about 60 seconds, but it moved me along." Railey says. "I just got shivers down my spine."
From that point to about 2008, while investors fell in and out of love with the likes of Google(:GOOG), Amazon(:AMZN) and Facebook(:FB), Railey struggled to land financing. But he kept plugging away and was awarded several foundational patents in personal propulsion. He took a chance and signed away his rights to a public television show that promised to help him, but Railey says they ended up shelving the project indefinitely.
Eventually, one lone gun saw potential. Michael Vlock, a veteran investor whose family owns a substantial share in Hyatt Hotels(:H), learned of Railey through a patent search he was conducting when he, too, was bitten by the idea for a powered board. He offered cash -- if Railey could prove his vision would work.
And yet, again, Railey got it done. With an engineering assist from Len Stobar, a professor he met at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., he developed a fully functioning prototype that he drove cross-country in a Rent a Wreck to Vlock's house. Then and there, Vlock committed to funding the product to the tune of $7 million.
Railey went into production, landed promotional surfers, created a marketing plan, approached journalists and started taking pre-orders.
A WaveJet can be yours for about $5,000.
The WaveJet almost drowns
Sounds like great American success story. But my fear is that it won't be. Though Railey says pre-orders are strong, and his company is firm, my read is Railey faces yet another long tough slog to get this product to be what it should. Outside the surfing media -- which views WaveJet with suspicion bordering on hatred -- and some California media outlets, Railey has not found the wider media or markets love a new idea needs.
Our digital world appears yet again too distracted to care about real things such as the Wavejet.
"There is so much water on the earth, and this is a better way to get in the water and use it," he says.
If WaveJet sinks, it won't be Railey's loss. It will be ours.