San Franciscans won’t soon forget June 13, 2012, and not just as the day Giants pitcher Matt Cain made MLB history by throwing a perfect game. It's also the day that, in the middle of the game, an unidentified man appeared to levitate over the San Francisco Bay, peering into the stadium, wearing something never seen outside of a movie studio: a water-propelled jet pack.
The moment captured the attention not only of the media and baseball fans—many who thought they were seeing a mirage—but also thrill-seekers who wanted to try out a jet pack of their own. Immediately after the game, phones at an office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, started ringing off the hook, and they haven’t stopped since. The man on the other end was Raymond Li, inventor and CEO of Jetlev, a company that makes jet packs for individuals (at $68,500 a pop) and tourism companies to buy and then rent out in places like the Caribbean, San Diego and San Francisco.
Particularly now, during National Inventors Month, Li’s story is an inventor’s fairytale. As a 12-year-old living in Hong Kong, he watched actor Sean Connery glide through the air attached to a jet pack in James Bond’s Thunderball and immediately felt compelled to build his own. But disappointment struck when he visited his local library and found a lack of books on how to build such a device. He and his family moved to Toronto four years later and it wasn’t until more than 20 years down the line, in 2000, that Li revisited his dream.
It took him 12 years and significant sacrifice (his commercial jet pack hit the market in early 2012), but today Li is at the helm of a successful company that has a growing number of clients across the world.
To other inventors, Li says, “If you have an idea for a product, make sure it has commercial value first; make sure there is a market for it. And know that it may be a long haul, but also know the importance of choosing the right members of your team. The right people will help you succeed.”
Creating a jet pack is an ambitious endeavor. Do you have a background in engineering?
[Laughs] No, not at all. I went to school for science and business at the University of Toronto and ran my own computer graphics firm for 15 years in St. John’s, Newfoundland. I then sold the business and started buying and renovating houses. It was during that time that I picked back up the idea of building a jet pack. I knew I wanted it to be propelled by water, but I had to do a ton of research, take classes and talk to countless engineers to figure out how to build it. It took years.
Did you tell anyone what you were doing?
I did at first, but everyone thought I was crazy, so I stopped telling people. When I finally had a prototype, I told my wife. She was sufficiently underwhelmed and worried that I had fallen off the deep end and that I would use up all of our savings tinkering around the garage for the rest of my life.
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What was your breakthrough moment?
In 2003, I felt like I had a good enough concept that I could solicit funding. I asked for help from the National Research Council of Canada and was given a grant. That money helped me move forward, and in 2005, I moved down to Fort Lauderdale to work with watercraft experts. It was a tough time because I wasn’t on a permanent visa and had to go back and forth a lot between the U.S. and Canada. It was a long road, but eventually, around 2008, the prototype started looking better and investors came calling.
We conducted beta tests from 2010 through 2011. I now have a work visa and 20 employees here, so I’m in Fort Lauderdale to stay.
Did you ever think about giving up?
I wouldn’t say that. There were many setbacks over the 10-plus years, including people not coming through on promises, funding drying up and prototypes not being what I wanted them to be. But eventually, I started looking at each challenge as a positive because I realized that I could overcome all of them.
How does your revenue model work?
Most of our clients are companies that are looking to buy and then rent the jet pack in tourist-centered locations. Those companies pay about $100,000 for the product and then can profit off of the rental prices they charge. We are finding the product to be so successful that many of these companies are making a 400 percent return on their investment per year.
We’ve also sold individual jet packs to wealthy individuals, mostly for them to use at their vacation homes.
Looking back, would you do it again?
Yes, I would. I am so happy to have achieved my childhood dream. It is such a great feeling when you are flying. You can fly upside-down, do barrel rolls and dive under water and then into the air. It is amazing. I really think this product will prove to be the next revolution in water recreation.
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Katie Morell is an independent journalist based in San Francisco. She regularly contributes to Hemispheres, USA Today, Consumers Digest, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Crain’s Chicago Business and others.
Photos Courtesy of Jetlev