It’s not unusual for diligent college students to work to supplement the student loans, scholarships, and family contributions that fund their educations. Part-time jobs, summer work, and online tutoring can all help pay a hefty tuition bill. And Alan Love-LaPan, managing director of AquaTech, LLC., funded his undergraduate biochemistry degree the same way: by selling products he created on the side. Fortunately for him, his products drew the attention of a professional cinematographer while on a photography trip on Fiji’s Tavarua Island.
That photographer asked if he could buy a few of Love-LaPan’s homemade waterproof camera casings, and Love-LaPan obliged. That moment inspired Love-LaPan to create additional camera cases and sell them in Hawaii during the 1998 surf season, when he estimates he sold maybe two dozen units. But the business grew from there, and Love-LaPan began selling them as his full-time job in 1999, two years after his graduation. They were custom made for clients until 2004, at which time AquaTech began stocking actual inventory. Now, AquaTech makes professional-level sport and underwater housings for cameras used in adverse conditions. The latest offering from the company is the AxisGo, an iPhone-specific case with an optional domed port accessory that allows users to take professional underwater photos without a DSLR camera.
For the first few years of production, Love-LaPan built the casings himself, using similar methods as other manufacturers. Because he’s based in Australia, sourcing materials like foam, fiberglass, and acrylic to build them himself was easier than having them shipped from California, where most were made at the time. Though he began sales of the units in 2000, the business wasn’t initially profitable. “We sold approximately 40 units in our first year. We really didn’t make a profit for the first four or five years,” Love-LaPan says. Fortunately for AquaTech, they did become profitable and Love-LaPan was able to grow the company into 15 full-time employees, split between California and New South Wales, Australia.
As a semi-professional photographer, Love-LaPan had always paid close attention to camera products on the market. He was interested in DSLR cameras, the interchangeable-lens cameras preferred by professional photographers. They can range in cost from a few hundred for an entry-level model to tens of thousands for a full-frame option, with lenses sold separately. The housings are nearly as expensive and, for underwater shooting, require additional equipment: red strobe lights to counteract the blue tints of the water and additional cases to accommodate different sized lenses. So when Love-LaPan saw the iPhone 7 hit the market, built with a camera that included advanced image stabilization and a lower f-stop, he started brainstorming for a way to apply his underwater DSLR cases to phones. “It was with the iPhone 7 and 7+ generation that we felt it was time to take these cameras seriously,” he says. “We just feel the smartphones are the future of consumer photography.”
The iPhone 7 was announced in September 2016, at which point AquaTech began development on the AxisGo, a waterproof case for iPhones that can pair with a domed lens port to take pictures without additional equipment. For products starting from scratch, Love-LaPan says the process can take up to eight or nine months. “But we hardly build anything from scratch anymore,” he says. To create the AxisGo, his team of five designers spent approximately three months testing prototypes and designs. “There have been a lot of challenges,” Love-LaPan says. “With AxisGo, our big challenges are speed to market and very high set-up costs.” Learning from lessons learned from past product launches, including one in 2005 in which the team accidentally blew up a mold valued at nearly $25,000, they used computer programs to model the design before producing and testing prototypes. That process allowed them to begin sales of the AxisGo in September 2017, just a few months after the iPhone 7 became available to buyers. The AxisGo can be taken to 33 feet deep and allows users to use the volume buttons to take photos as the touchscreens can’t be used below the surface. Unlike an action camera, users can see the photos they’re taking on a large screen and, with the domed port addition, can take photos that are split above and below the water.
Now, the AxisGo case is one of AquaTech’s highest selling products. Between 2017 and 2018, the first full year of sales, AquaTech sold 2,000 AxisGo Cases, outselling the traditional DSLR cases by 500 units over the same time period.
While Love-LaPan isn’t ready to announce specific new products for 2019, he’s confident that AquaTech will continue to produce offerings likely to be popular with consumers. He believes the technical knowledge he’s gained combined with the products they already have on the market will give AquaTech an edge when it comes to underwater photography. “We are also now working with the best design team and factories we have had in 20 years,” he says. “So, no slowing down for us.”