Solar-powered boat gets Michigan launch

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A woman does a handstand on a solar-powered Lilypad boat in a group on the Kalamazoo River.

Lilypad Labs

A woman does a handstand on a solar-powered Lilypad boat in a group on the Kalamazoo River.

By ANASTASIA PIRRAMI
Capital News Service

A solar-powered boat has recently emerged on the Kalamazoo River that can even run through the night after the sun fully charges it.

The Lilypad rental boat is pollution-free and fits up to nine passengers.

When at rest, the solar panels of the boat function as the cover and ensure that the interior is kept clean, said Dana Lowell, Lilypad Labs chief executive officer. Once opened, it is ready to launch from the dock.

The company is based in Holland.

Lowell describes the Lilypad as a good business model. The company sells time on – not the boat – itself and that provides more access to many more people compared to a privately held boat, he said.

If a boat is sold once, the profit made could be $10,000 for one time and then it’s done, Lowell said.

“I can rent the boat for 15 years and it has $1.8 million worth of revenue in that timespan,” Lowell said. “I like that business model better. It’s better for everybody involved, and it uses the asset better.”

The Lilypad is maneuvered by a joystick. Batteries charge as long as it is in the sunlight. The company’s two vessels can be rented at a marina in Saugatuck.

When production is scaled up, the company plans to launch an app for easy access and scheduling, similar to a ride-share app for cars. 

The advantage to renting a ride for the boater is that a standard recreational boat comes with a lot of labor and expenses like buying a boat, storing, insuring, towing and unloading it in and out of the water, Lowell said. And Michigan boaters have a limited season compared to the upkeep of a boat all year round.

Lowell describes the Lilypad as systems-level thinking. The vessel is meant to be easier, more affordable and without the complications of owning a typical recreational boat, he said.

“It’s purpose-built design,” Lowell said.

The initial idea for the Lilypad sprouted in response to the climate crisis, Lowell said. Typical recreational boats produce carbon emissions from burning fuel, according to Sailors for the Sea

“Lilypad is an icon for carbon-free mobility and accessibility,” Lowell said.

It is made from recycled and environmentally friendly products. Aluminum catamaran hulls can be recycled indefinitely. The timber and decking is harvested salvage lumber and reused batteries are recovered from the automotive industry, Lowell said.

“We were really focused and purposeful in terms of how we designed this and what it was about,” Lowell said. “We really are just trying to do the right thing, which is the smart thing.”

The Lilypad is one of four Michigan companies that received up to $60,000 in investments from Centrepolis Accelerator in 2021.

The unique business incubator helps produce clean technology products. It is funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the \ Department of Environmental, Great Lakes and Energy, said Centrepolis Acceleration Executive Director Dan Radomski.

It is the only incubator of its kind that has in-house design, engineering and prototyping, Radomski said. “A lot of incubators are great at helping with business strategy and raising funding and maybe giving some experienced entrepreneurs. But when it comes to developing a physical product, none of the incubators have in-house design engineering staff, let alone prototyping capabilities, and that’s what we bring.”

Centrepolis Acceleration, on the campus of Lawrence Technological Institute in Southfield, helped Lilypad Labs get building materials from local suppliers. It also connected Lilypad Labs to a number of other Michigan investors and marinas.

The Lilypad was never designed to go fast, Lowell said. It travels about 5 or 6 mph and is not made to pull inner tubes or wakeboards.

“It is designed to be this social experience cafe table on the water,” he said. “And if you get out of that space, it won’t be able to form those end goals. Other than that, it’s a pretty capable platform.”

 The company will have a better gauge of whom the boat appeals to once more boats are launched and there is extended use from renters, he said.

Electric boats are an “emerging technology that may be unfamiliar to shoppers,” according to the Michigan Boating Industries Association. 

Surveys show that 39% of respondents were exclusively considering an electric boat for their next purchase; 33% were looking for both gas and electric boats and 27% of shoppers said they were searching exclusively for a gas-powered boat, according to the boating association. 

There are two Lilypads available for rental at Retro Boat Rentals in Saugatuck. Lowell said Lilypad Labs is hoping to produce and launch more come spring 2023.

A solar panel at sunset in a Lilypad boat on the Kalamazoo River. A fully charged boat can run all night

Lilypad Labs

A solar panel at sunset in a Lilypad boat on the Kalamazoo River. A fully charged boat can run all night
A Lilypad boat is loaded with snacks and beverages.

Lilypad Labs

A Lilypad boat is loaded with snacks and beverages.