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Test-driving the $59K electric hydrofoil Jet Ski, new water toy of the uber rich

The Valo Hyperfoil is a combination of surfing, flying, and riding a Harley without a helmet.

Reporter Zara Stone rides the Valo hyperfoil in Alameda. | Courtesy of Valo Hyperfoil

Test-driving the $59K electric hydrofoil Jet Ski, new water toy of the uber rich

The Valo Hyperfoil is a combination of surfing, flying, and riding a Harley without a helmet.

Last week, I flew across the Brooklyn Basin in Alameda, my body skimming three feet above the water. A quick shift on the throttle and I carved left and right, taking turns at 20 mph, while seated atop the Valo Hyperfoil, a $59,000 flying electric Jet Ski.

The sensation was euphoric—a combination of surfing, flying, and riding a motorcycle with no helmet. The wind whipped my hair, and the landscape blurred as I flew, but it was a surprisingly silent ride. The electric motor was whisper-quiet compared to the metal-on-chalkboard growls of a fuel-powered Jet Ski. It was a super smooth ride as I floated above the waves, rather than plowed through them, as with Jet Ski 1.0.

It took a while to fine-tune my driving skills. When the hydrofoil reached a certain speed, its hull rose majestically out of the water, and, startled by the speed of the ascent, I released the throttle and splashed down again. Once I worked up the courage not to release the gas, I didn’t want to get off.

Reporter Zara Stone rides the Valo hyperfoil in Alameda. | Source: Courtesy Valo Hyperfoil

“That was the longest demo ride we’ve ever had,” said Ed Kearney, the boyish-faced 37-year-old founder of Valo, as I stepped back onto the dock after 20 minutes. At top speed, I’d have topped around 25 mph; Valo’s forthcoming model will reach 42 mph, according to Kearney. 

The Alameda-based company launched in 2022, spinning out of Kearney’s prior startup, Boundary Layer, which had prototyped hydrofoil cargo boats that never made it to market. To date, Kearney’s raised $7.1 million for both companies, received a Good Design award for the Hyperfoil, and has $124 million in letters of intent from ferry companies and manufacturers to deliver industrial-sized hydrofoil systems.

Valo’s hoping that gaining traction as a fun tech toy for the one percent will allow them to expand into bigger businesses, including replacing air freight shipping and passenger ferries. This would be a big environmental win, they believe; in 2022, marine vessels released around 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a fraction of the 370 million tons contributed by cars, but still a lot of carbon. 

A man wearing sunglasses and a life vest smiles and makes a peace sign while riding a "Development Platform" hydrofoil boat on the water, with ships in the background.
Valo CTO Reo Baird gives off Bond vibes as he rides the Valo Hyperfoil. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

“We’d love to see folks commuting on it,” said Kearney, who plans to offer test-rides between Oakland and San Francisco Bay. “The water’s this huge untapped resource.”  (This could prove legally problematic. Barring a few exceptions, Jet Skis are not currently allowed in San Francisco Bay. The SFPD’s Marine Unit did not respond to a request for comment.)

To date, Kearney’s received around 60 pre-orders for the first batch of Valo Jet Skis, scheduled to ship in late 2024, totaling “about $3.5 million worth of product.” Of course, at $59,000 a pop, the economics aren’t quite there yet for the casual commuter—or even the avid jet skier, who can expect to spend between $5,000 and $20,000 for typical watercraft. But the hydrofoil Jet Ski isn’t just a flex for the uber-rich, emphasized Kearney: “We’re on the pathway [to] creating a transportation revolution.”

The Tesla of the water

Hydrofoiling dates back 150 years, when a Frenchman first stuck metal plows with a wide flat end (now called wings) below his rowing boat. The techniques involved in hydrofoil design changed over the years, and were revitalized by the resurgence of foils in sailing. In 2013, Larry Ellison included hydrofoiling catamarans in the America’s Cup race. Soon, Mark Zuckerberg’s foilboarding hi-jinx made the news, and Bay Area techies went all in on electric foilboarding, essentially surfing over the water with the aid of an underwater propellor.

Valo is Kearney’s third foray into the startup world. In 2017, he moved from Sydney to San Francisco to participate in Y Combinator with Snapr, his photography-on-demand startup. “I was exposed to so much cool stuff,” he said; his YC cohort included a guy building electric 737’s, a Fitbit for dairy cows, and a decarbonization startup. “That was the catalyst,” he said.

Two men are sitting on a boat docked at a marina, with yachts and palm trees in the background. One wears a cap and white long-sleeve, the other sunglasses and a white t-shirt.
CEO Edward Kearny hangs out with Reo Baird on the Valo dock. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard
A person wearing sunglasses and a life vest pilots a small hydrofoil craft labeled "Development Platform" over calm water near a grassy shoreline.
Reporter Zara Stone pilots the Valo hyperfoil around the boating dock in Alameda. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

As a kid, Kearny and his dad had watched hours of footage of the MIT Human-Powered Hydrofoil project, and he’d dreamed about somehow bringing that tech to life one day. The move from photo app CEO to boat-trepreneur wasn’t totally out of left field: he studied civil engineering in college, followed by a master’s in oceanography and coastal engineering at the University of New South Wales.  

Kearney, who now lives in Pacific Heights, went through Y Combinator again in 2019, this time with a new company, Boundary Layer, that was developing hydrofoil ocean freighters. The goal was to replace air freight, a $100 billion industry that produces vast amounts of C02.

By demo day, he’d hacked together a working prototype and proudly presented his zero-emission hydrofoil container ship to attendees. The plan was to scale up, but the famously conservative marine industry wasn’t receptive. Kearney had raised $5 million (plus $90 million in letters of intent), but that was a drop in the ocean in the boat–building world. Building big-ass boats is expensive, he said. Their size meant they’d have to be powered by zero-emission liquid hydrogen, adding another layer of complexity. 

By 2022, Kearney’s business was looking dead in the water. “That’s when I thought, let’s go to the other end of the spectrum, and make the smallest thing we can that demonstrates our key technologies,” he said.

Enter the hydrofoil Jet Ski. It was fun, it was different, and it was perfectly timed. The Jet Ski market was thriving: In 2023, the global business for the personal watercraft was valued at $1.9 billion, with North America taking a 62% slice of that pie. “Because it’s a toy, you don’t have to present a business case,” said Kearney. “But it shows the core technology. The recreational boating industry is not very price sensitive….they spend money because they want to spend money.”

His team hacked together the Valo in six months. 

‘People like to have fun’

I rode their prototype model—Valo’s only model to date—and can confirm the flying feeling. It was incredible to float above the water and glide in near silence around Alameda’s waterfront. But the Jet Ski I drove also had a hacker-esque vibe to it which belied the $59,000 price tag. The hull appeared to be made of gray styrofoam, the rear platform had visible wires, and the overall finish looked more like an impressive stage prop than a Tesla. 

The final product will look far more polished, Kearney assured me. The Valo Founders Edition (what the company’s calling its first 60-craft run) would be a sleek, wire-free cruising machine, with a vegan leather seat and a dark silver body, able to be fully charged in three hours. The new model does away with the tri-foil design of the prototype, which has two foils at the front and one at the back, to a streamlined two-foil design.

The image shows a boat's control console with a handlebar, a mounted tablet, buttons, switches, and a joystick on a sleek, cushioned seat by the water.
The prototype The Standard drove had a hacker-esque vibe that belied the $59,000 price tag. The hull appeared to be made of gray styrofoam, the rear platform had visible wires, and the overall finish looked more like a stage prop than a Tesla.  | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard
A person is holding a brochure featuring a black watercraft called "VALO," floating above water. Contact details, including a website, email, Instagram, and address, are shown below.
Kearny holds a flyer showing what a production-quality Valo Hyperfoil may look like. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

“In the arc of startups, [you] want something that’s super differentiated and shows off the technology—and you want to get there as soon as possible,” said Alex Teng, a partner at San Francisco-based venture capital firm Fifty Years, which invested early in Kearney’s cargo freight startup. Teng said the Valo’s “awesome” to ride: “You feel so connected to the water and then it’s whoa, I’m flying.” 

On the downside, hydrofoils are harder to control than regular boats, as they’re not as stable, Teng noted. If that gets figured out, well, “there’s a whole class of boats that would like to go electric [and] hydrofoil,” he said. Advances in material science, such as carbon fiber composites and ultra-high-strength stainless steels, make this plausible at scale. “It’s a different powertrain concept than the typical internal combustion engine,” he said.  

Reo Baird, the chief technology officer for Valo, has tackled the stability question with Skyride, a control system that utilizes a stack of actuators, sensors, computers, and embedded electronics to make real-time micro-steering adjustments. “That’s really the key technology behind the vehicle,” said Baird.

Consumer interest has been huge, said Kearney, who receives weekly emails and Instagram inquiries from would-be customers. Kearney wouldn’t share any names of pre-order buyers but said they include some Saudis, a couple of Bay Area big shots, and people in Florida and Texas.

The goal is to build traction, he said, and then direct the interest back to the freight space. “[This is] our flywheel to build bigger things… [we’ll] come at the market opportunity from the other direction.” 

That seemed like a giant leap, and I pressed for more answers. “Sure, it’s not like someone’s gonna ride our Jet Ski and say, by the way, I also own an air freight company,” he said. Instead, he hopes that broader acclimatization to hydrofoils in general, via Jet Ski usage, will solidify the science for people. 

“At the end of the day, this is America,” said Kearney. “People like to have fun and people take risks. We don’t see how this is any less safe than what’s already on the market.”