By Sigurd Neubauer
“I am very tenacious. I love challenges, especially when people tell me that I cannot do it,” declares the French inventor-turned-entrepreneur Marion Excoffon.
She is the co-founder of the TIWAL brand, a sailboat company based in Plescop, France.
It all started in 2008 when her father refused to lend her his sailboat, which prompted his then 22-year-old daughter to invent her own inflatable sailboat, the TIWAL. As a design student at the prestigious L’École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle in Paris, Excoffon developed and patented the technology behind the dinghy. The TIWAL – which comes in three versions – takes about 20 minutes to assemble and can be packed into two bags, which easily fits into the back of a car.
Excoffon recalls how she grew up sailing on her grandfather’s sailboat, the Beneteau First 30/First 30 E,which was designed for coastal cruising around France. Today, the sailboat belongs to her father, François Excoffon. “One day, when I was about 20 years old, I asked him if he could lend me his boat because I wanted to sail alone but he refused,” the entrepreneur recalls, adding that she posed the same request a year later, but the answer remained no. For a third time but a year later, she asked again but the answer had not changed. “At the time, I said: ‘Ok, father, I will design my own boat.’”
Excoffon is passioned about further developing the TIWAL brand. Photo credit: Courtesy
I love playing around with tools and materials, including the industrial process. I have also developed a lot of prototypes: Excoffon
Excoffon’s strong personality, enthusiasm, humor, and grace shines throughout our interview. She does, however, admit that she’s not quite reasonable and can be difficult.
“I am very close to my father. He’s an architect so we can understand each other well.” On why her father had said no, Excoffon admits that it was because of the stubborn fact that she didn’t know how to sail at the time. “He was very reasonable, but I am not,” she says with a laugh. “We both laugh about this story today and my father is very proud of me and the story. He trusts me,” she says, then quips: “Now, we’re using each other’s boats.”
‘A perfect boat’
In 2010, Excoffon developed her own prototype. “At the time, I wanted to design a boat that didn’t exist without any compromise,” by compromise, she explains, she means “a perfect boat.” This was, she admits with a laugh, “a big challenge.” Excoffon subsequently completed a market analysis of all the available dinghies on the market. What she discovered was that all of them required a trailer, a launching ramp, and somewhere to store it. The entrepreneur also discovered assembling any of the dinghies could be time consuming.
“My vision centered on developing a boat that would be easy to launch into the water, easy to carry, and easy to store. It also needed, of course, to perform well.” But translating her vision into reality, Excoffon admits, was a big challenge. To develop a collapsible boat, the inventor-turned-entrepreneur started with a skin-on-frame-boat modeled as a concept on the kayak, which has a wood frame with a skin. She then began the drawing process by drawing numerous models, including of a skin-on-frame-boat which could be collapsed. During this phase – in 2008 that is – the first inflatable paddle boat came on the market. “I developed the first prototype where the hull was made with drop stitch. The skin on frame was the very first model and I worked very quickly afterwards with drop stitch, which I tested on water before showing it to my father,” she recalls.
At the demonstration, the father had forgotten all about his daughter’s initial challenge. “When my father saw the boat, he said: ‘What is this,’ to which I responded: ‘you don’t remember but this is the challenge from a few years ago. This is my boat!’” She even offered to lend it to him.
The TIWAL is the first boat manufactured in drop stitch fabric, which is also used for inflatable paddle boats. “Drop stitch is a material that allows inflatable structures to be made with 100 percent flat surfaces. This makes them far more rigid and sturdy. The fabric is made by joining two external pieces of material using thousands of fine polyester threads that are tightly woven together,” according to Lefield Marine.
While the skin-on-frame was the first model developed by Excoffon, the second was made out of drop stitch. “The dinghy has two-layers of textiles with yarn. When it is deflated, it turns flat,” she says, adding that “this is the big innovation of this boat,” which she has patented. The boat has a V-shape with an aluminum frame. “I wanted something that was easy to assemble, and it even has a pushpin that is used to build the frame.”
Commenting on what it took to design it, the inventor explains that “one has to be very precise to build a boat that is rigid. If it is not rigid, it is not a good boat,” she prefaces. This, she adds, is also a big part of the innovation with an aluminum frame that is easy to assemble. This concept was patented in 2011 before meeting with investors and manufacturing,
Building a business
Excoffon’s business partner, Emmanuel Bertrand, is also her partner in-life. She is the inventor where he’s the CEO. Together, they have a four-year old daughter, Alix. The company’s headquarters is in the town of Plescop, and has 10 employees, including a U.S. sales office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The U.S. market is by far our biggest,” she reveals.
“I am a very enthusiastic person and I love that the TIWAL brand represents an enthusiastic lifestyle. “It is a fun brand, which I want people to enjoy and to play with,” the entrepreneur, who, of course, loves sailing, says.
Responding to how TIWAL was chosen as the company name, Excoffon reveals that she and Bertrand had wanted a short-name with five letters but that the word doesn’t mean anything per se. “What the name represents is a new word for a new type of boat,” she reveals.
The sailboat is assembled in Brittany with 50 percent of suppliers coming from France, 25 percent from Europe, and the remaining 25 percent from other countries. So far, 2400 boats have been sold on every continent but the first model – the original product – is the most popular. On why this is, the inventor explains that it is the most versatile boat. “You can use it alone, or with your family and children,” she explains, then quips: “Even better, the kids can take it and say, by, by father,” she says with a laugh. The TIWAL 3 is the original.
I am perfectionist who loves sailing, of course. I can also be a difficult person: Excoffon