Startup of the Week / PowerUp: How to Control Your Paper Plane by Phone

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Remember paper planes? Bet you played with them during recess at school, or made floppy ones out of napkins during boring restaurant meals. All you need is a piece of paper.

And then one man had the bright idea of upgrading this simple toy for the Internet generation born with a smartphone in hand.

How did he do that? He made it smart.

Meet PowerUp 3.0, the smartphone-controlled paper airplane made by Israeli company Tailor Toys. It’s the first product of its type in the world, says the company.

Don’t be misled by the simplicity. Product development took two years, including research, and building 57 prototypes. And finally the company found a technology that can turns any paper airplane into a smart plane that can be controlled via a smartphone application (it's well worth clicking here for how-the-devil-this-happened story).

All you need is to make a paper plane and buy the company’s kit. Now you attach the kit’s propeller to the tail of the airplane (which flies the thing); attach a Bluetooth communications device to the airplane’s nose (allowing it to be remotely controlled); and attach a charged battery that gives the plane 10 minutes’ flying power. The kits cost $49 each.

All the components are made of rigid, durable materials, so the plane can survive crashes without being destroyed. At least its non-paper parts.

The first PowerUp products hit the market last May, and the first to receive them were those who participated in financing the project via Kickstarter.

Amazon power

Smart paper planes are one of the biggest crowdfunding success stories Israel has ever had. The initial goal was to raise $50,000. In the end, 21,000 people collectively invested $1.2 million, evidently charmed out of their hard-earned money by this wholly useless and delightful concept.

The man behind PowerUp is Shai Goitein – pilot, industrial designer and inventor. Goitein started in the Israel Air Force. Then, being an industrial designer by training, he joined the prepress division of Scitex in 2002. (That was after the company was bought by Creo, which in turn was bought by Kodak in 2007.)

Realizing his dream of bringing the pleasure of flight to everyone took longer than he expected.

Goitein developed his first remote-controlled paper airplane in 2006, while still working at Creo. He sold the license to produce his invention to the toy company Spin Master but then the financial crisis of 2008 erupted, global finance melted down and his product crashed and burned, so to speak.

Come 2011, “I developed a low-class version of this kit for a cost of under $20,” Goitein said. But nobody took any interest in the cheapo kit and Goitein decided to manufacture it himself.

He went to China, as one does, produced 3,000 units and offered them for sale on Amazon.

“Suddenly we received terrific exposure – the product was presented on Jay Leno’s ‘Tonight Show’ and on Amazon itself,” he said. “Out of the hundreds of thousands of products in the site’s ‘toys’ category, we reached 80th place in the ratings.

“And then the problems began – the propellers broke. That happened in about 20 percent of the products. I stopped everything, pulled the merchandise and replaced the damaged parts. Before Christmas that year, all the units had been sold.”

At this stage, Goitein said, he realized he had a potential blockbuster and realized he needed to brand the beast, not to mention register patents and trademarks. He had to think about design and strategy.

Origami meets high-tech

“The concept that led us to the current product, PowerUp 3.0, was combining technology with origami. We began to turn the idea into a company,” he says modestly.

“We understood that online retailing sites focus mainly on products with small packages,” he continued. “We planned the product so that it would weigh less than 100 grams and fit into an envelope that fits through the slot of an average mailbox...“Everyone can fold a plane at home,” he continued. “We provide models – for a plan, for a boat. From our standpoint, we’re just sending the unit that turns your folded paper into a motorized vehicle.”

Financing came from Kickstarter. “Before this project I thought Kickstarter as meant for students who were finishing their studies and wanted to do a final project,” Goitein says. “In mid-2013, my opinion changed. Kickstarter is a website that presents itself as if it’s meant for ‘indie’ projects, but it has become a marketing platform for small companies or startups.”

His material costs are about three times that of the average toy – between $10 and $15, he says. “To achieve a reasonably sized production run, I needed $100,000. There were other reasons for turning to a crowdfunding platform: It enabled us to understand the type of products the market was more interested in – for example, through the Rewards feature. In order to succeed on Kickstarter, you have to stand out from the rest, and our starting point was very good because of the previous media coverage we’d received. In addition, our idea was very simple to grasp; it was very international but also very personal. Everyone remembers the first time they launched a paper airplane.” Or maybe they don’t, but they remember that it’s fun.

Shai Goitein married technology with origami to come up with the smart paper plane. Credit: Shei Goitein
Smartphones can do some amazing things nowadays. Israeli technology can help the authorities know what your phone has been doing.Credit: Shai Goitein
The brain of the plane is smaller than a quarter.Credit: Shai Goitein