Aguadilla firm lifts off global powered foil board market
By John Weeks
Special to The Star
Nick Leason, co-founder of the Aguadilla-based battery-powered foil board company Lift – and arguably the founder of the sport itself – answered my early question with a sly smile. I had asked where his family business fits into the growing global market for this luxury watercraft that Lift calls an “eFoil.” The mechanical engineer and “waterman” allowed this: “Well, everyone wants to say they have the best design.”
Then he spoke to less debatable distinctions of their brand of watercraft designed to allow board and rider to “fly” above the water’s surface.
“We didn’t create a version,” Leason said. “We built the sport from scratch.”
Quantitative data supports the Puerto Rican firm’s claims.
“We presently have between 40%-60% of the global market,” Leason said.
In addition, Lift’s chief competitor pays royalties for patents on inventions that Leason and his team developed out of their shop.
Lift’s corporate journey began in 2010, shaping surfboards and competition paddle boards. Lift’s focus on building the seemingly gravity-defying product and the sport – Leason now likes to brand their products as “the world’s smallest personal watercraft” – began in 2015. Eight years in, the firm employs 60-70 people in their high season, the northern summer.
The jump into creating a new arm of the surfing industry proved a good bet. Lift’s sales have reached 12,000 units, with purchasers from 80 countries. Each unit retails for $9,000-$12,000. Total revenues have reached well over $100 million.
A family of entrepreneurs and ‘watermen’
Nick Leason represents a third generation of multiple entrepreneurial business investments here in Puerto Rico.
His paternal grandfather, Hayden Leason, moved most production for his Filter Tech medical supply business from Wisconsin to Maunabo and Patillas in the 1960s and 1970s. Michael Leason, Hayden’s son and Nick’s father, developed the Villa Montana community kitty corner across the island in Isabela. Lift was co-founded there by the father-son team in a shop on the family compound.
(In fact, Nick’s elder sister, Brooke Leason, ND, through whom I met the family a decade ago, is engaged in her own entrepreneurial work to provide new healthcare opportunities in San Juan.)
Nick Leason, whose early love of physics and mathematics led to pursuing a mechanical engineering degree, describes his enthusiasm: “This involved hydrodynamics, it was engineering, it was surfing, it was flying – it was like everything I love all in one package.”
That father and son are each acknowledged “watermen” for their abilities as big wave surfers, kite-boarders, and windsurfers has its advantages. They’ve drawn the attention of renowned surfers Laird Hamilton and Kai Lenny. Hamilton is now part of the Lift team. Another advantage: “My father is our main tester,” Nick said. “The Michael Leason ruggedness test is a high bar.”
Market expected to grow
Lift’s journey has been quite a wild ride. They’ve faced multiple technical challenges, some of which have led to 13 patents in the United States, Europe and China, that are listed on their website. Meantime they’ve confronted the considerable communications requirements to develop and serve a global clientele.
The elder Leason, in a text message, credited his son’s “talents and tenacity” for Lift’s growth and success to date.
“They have worked hard and created a new water sport in a relatively short time,” he said.
Nick Leason reflects: “We had to ramp up production and sales, doubling year after year,” he said. “I’d say we are completing stage one of market growth.”
The next stage is setting up as a classic movement from innovators and early adopters to a broader clientele. One sign of change: “Bigger players are getting into the business,” Leason said.
Brunswick, the largest pleasure boat company in the world, recently purchased Lift’s main competitor, the Australian firm Fliteboard.
“Sea Doo,” Leason adds, “says it’s coming out with a product next year.”
I asked Leason for pros and cons of Lift’s island location. His first response complimented his employee pool.
“The culture of the people here is key,” he said. “Puerto Ricans are very handy individuals. They’ve built houses, fixed cars, they’re savvy and humble.”
He also believes Lift’s location, basically on the beach, creates the right atmosphere.
“Clients connect with our geography,” Leason said. “It helps that most all of us here at Lift are avid users of what we are developing.”
Major downsides relate to limited transportation options for batteries and other key parts that come from off-island. Mailing out the assembled products is also expensive. According to Leason, Lift has the largest DHL account in Puerto Rico, and one of the largest in the southeast of the United States. And while certain tax benefits are helpful to the company’s competitive position, he finds some administrative processes can be grating.
The advent of major watercraft corporations and conglomerates certainly carves a new landscape for this second phase of Lift’s performance. A good sign this past year: Lift parried a move by its leading Chinese competitor, Waydoo, by filing and handily winning $1.3 million in royalties in a patent infringement case.
The biggest problem for the sport is “accessibility,” Leason says. A significant part of that is price. Lift is toward the high end among its competitors. Another relates to the vehicle an owner needs to get the powered foil to the beach. Here Lift shines, swapping time for assembly for ease of sliding the components into a compact car.
Might Lift make a similar choice as Fliteboard and sell? This is the moment for such a move for many start-ups.
Leason acknowledges that selling is not off the table. He wouldn’t share whether the firm is currently exploring any specific offers. Then he quickly added: “Whatever we do, I’m not going away. I’ll be building these watercraft and working on these problems for a long time, no matter what.”