It is the ultimate dream of every industrial designer, Lenneke tells us: designing your own product and then bringing it onto the market. Not working for somebody else’s company, but with your own business. De Voogd knows the difference. After graduating in Industrial Design in 1997, she worked at TNO for twelve years. She spent a lot of time in sports innovation – for example, she worked on the new cooling rowing suits that were used at the Olympics in Athens in 2004.
De Voogd made a move TU Delft in 2009, where she was sports innovation coordinator at the valorisation centre. The idea for Volans Rowing emerged after discussions with the Eindhoven student rowing club, who were keen to promote their sport. Together with her business partner Cees van Bladel, who was working at Stichting Sports & Technology, she started thinking: why do so few people row in the Netherlands? Despite the thousands of new students who join the sport each year, and despite the tens of thousands who use a rowing machine at the gym, the Dutch Rowing Federation never seems to grow beyond 33,000 members.
One problem is that rowing seems very focused on competitive sports, and the type of scull that is used for competitions – seven metres long and very unstable – is difficult for beginners to row in. They are also expensive, bulky and difficult to transport. With the help of IDE students and in collaboration with DSM and the Dutch Rowing Federation, De Voogd and Van Bladel started developing a new type of rowing boat, the Volans2. It is small, compact, user-friendly and about €4,000 cheaper than the sculls used in competitive rowing. Its hull is a little wider and instead of the rower sliding back and forth on a seat, it is the slider rigger, the part with the oars, that does so. This boosts stability and speed, in spite of its short length.
The first boat was launched in June 2011, and since June 2012 Volans Rowing has been located at the tech-incubator YesDelft. But De Voogd quit her job at TU Delft without knowing what the future would bring.
Now, in 2014, she does not regret that decision, even though she and her partner have to do project management and consultancy work to supplement their income. ‘I have confidence in the steps we are making,’ the IDE alumna says. ‘We have now sold over a hundred boats in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and America. We have one dealer in the Netherlands and one in Germany. The next step will be to look for dealers in other countries. Then we can start scaling up. It also helps to promote the boat at events with famous athletes.
In August we introduced the VolansKids model and we also have plans for a sea-going rowing boat. In about two or three years we should reach the point of breaking even.’ The pair were advised to stick to just one boat for the time being, but they have chosen to ignore that advice. Yes, product development, negotiations with factories, marketing, networking and sales are now all mixed up together, and they are doing almost everything themselves, but De Voogd would not want it any other way. ‘What drives us is developing and expanding the sport of rowing, starting with young people. Our mission is to make rowing a sport for everyone, regardless of background. So we didn’t want to wait too long to introduce our kids boat.’