Taking paddleboarding to new heights — or depths

Northern Michigan University student Henry Westlind shows off his VirsaQuest paddleboard. The board is unique in that it has special technological adaptations. (Photo courtesy of Henry Westlind)

MARQUETTE — A paddleboard, to many people, might conjure up images of just what its name says: a paddle and a board.

Although those basic pieces of equipment probably will let a person travel on the water just fine, paddleboarding in the new VirsaQuest world could add new technological aspects that even allow swimming underwater.

Northern Michigan University senior Henry Westlind, who is graduating this spring with a degree in entrepreneurship, is the mastermind behind the company VirsaQuest, which through Innovate Marquette SmartZone has evolved from the idea stage to an early stage ready for investment startup.

Westlind got a good start on his company by winning the 2022 Mini-Pitch competition at NMU. However, companies typically don’t move forward on their own.

They do, though, start with an idea.

“The idea is to build a platform of a paddleboard that almost any user can use, and I wanted to do rental model where people can rent and fall in love with the product, and then go out and buy it,” Westlind said. “The paddleboard is a platform where you can have additional add-ons or upgrades to suit your needs.”

One of the coolest ones, he said, is a “sea-scooter” that would, when plugged in, replace the fin of the paddleboard.

“It will propel you across the surface of the water,” Westlind said. “Then you can actually remove the motor and go scuba diving with it. So it’s a two-in-one.”

Westlind said motor plugs into the back of the board magnetically, and the user can remove it and hold it in their hands.

“The paddleboard becomes your dive buoy because it’s already there on the surface,” he said.

Westlind said an air-tube dive system is used in place of a paddleboarder having a compressed air tank on their back.

It too serves a dual purpose.

“Now that can be your tether and now you can breathe underwater for as long as you like, getting pulled around by the sea-scooter ,and go check out everything underwater that you think is interesting,” Westlind said.

VirsaQuest has interchangeable solar panels that can be added to the board for additional power, he said, while the board’s middle section where people stand is hard-sided. The bow and stern are inflatable.

This makes it easy to take it from place to place.

“It folds around itself into its own briefcase pretty much, so you don’t need a bag to transport it,” Westlind said. “You don’t need a roof-rack to get it to the water. You can store it in your apartment. You can store it in the rental locations really easily.”

The design also lends the product to being part of a shipping or rental business, with the paddleboards franchised.

Westlind built one prototype himself, but will work with a company to develop pre-production models that he hopes to test this summer.

Westlind said he’s funded his venture himself after having sold his lawn-mowing business before coming to NMU. However, he acknowledged that when he gets to where he needs additional funds, he can raise money through friends, family and the community.

He plans to start with a rental model of business.

“If I get a customer base, people are falling in love,” Westlind said. “They know what the company is. They know what product they’re going to buy. I’d like to retail the board, just the generic board, for about $1,200.”

The upgrades, he said, would depend on the technology.

“You can customize as well,” Westlind said. “I have four latching points in the middle of the board for endless upgrades. So, the idea is to have a backrest that you can use, a seat you can use, fishing pole mounts, a sunshade, tackle box holder. Everything that you can imagine you can throw on this, because it’s so configurable.”

Westlind envisions VirsaQuest will get going in the summer of 2024 with three to 10 rental locations in the Upper Peninsula, possibly with no option to buy yet since quantities will be limited. The idea with the rental sites, he noted, is that the boards can be transported across the U.S.

He said VirsaQuest is going to be a “shipping container, pod-style drop business” that can be dropped anywhere a city or private resident will allow, with boards rented out.

Once winter comes to the U.P., the products can be shipped to places such as Florida and California, he said, for a year-round business for the franchise owners.

He believes paddleboarding appeals to people for a number of reasons.

“I think it’s really good exercise,” Westlind said. “It gets you out in nature and it a little bit more enjoyable than kayaking, maybe, for a younger person.”

He acknowledged that people can get tired from standing on a paddleboard, but that’s why his products will have chair attachments. His design allows users to stand on the bottom of the board, with their ankles on the top of the board.

“You’re sunken into the water, so you have a lower center of gravity, which means added stability,” he said. “I’ve used my prototype already. You feel like you’re suction-cupped to the water, and you have no chance of tipping over as much as you could on a generic board.”

The motor can help the user control the board, he said, plus it has seamless controls into the paddle. The board is all electric, using batteries and a battery bank that will charge the motor when it’s plugged into the board as well as attachments.

“It’s all sustainable,” Westlind said.

Another unique amenity is the transparent area where a user will stand.

So, if a paddleboarder spots a big lake trout or other underwater denizen, their curiosity can be satisfied.

“The idea is that you’re paddling along, you can see the environment beneath you,” Westlind said. “When you see something cool, interesting, you want to go check it out, you can actually do that. You remove the motor, you put on the dive mask if you have the air-tube dive system and go check it out yourself.

“It’s a hands-on experience. You don’t have to just look at it from a distance.”

The company name VirsaQuest, he said, stands for “versatility for any quest,” although he spells versatility differently because he likes the “vi” branding.

VirsaQuest is the company, he said, with the first paddleboard called the Vision and the rental model called the Village. The attachments are under the umbrella “Vibes.”

The mission of Innovate Marquette SmartZone, it said, is to position Marquette as a premier city for innovation and business development through cultivating entrepreneurs, small businesses and start-ups. It’s located at 101 W. Washington St., Suite 11, in Marquette — part of a financial hub in the city that includes the Lake Superior Community Partnership and other financial entities.

Innovate Marquette is the parent company and “accelerator,” while Invent@NMU is the student team and “Incubator,” Westlind said. When clients arrive at Innovate Marquette SmartZone, they start as Incubator clients, and once they get far enough in the process they become accelerator clients.

“We’re by their side as these startups launch into the community, become revenue positive and begin to expand their teams indicating external success,” said Joe Thiel, Innovate Marquette CEO, in a news release. “It’s next-level stuff, and we can’t wait to see what’s next for these inspiring entrepreneurs.”


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