This smart wallet startup accidentally built a crazy efficient solar panel

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This smart wallet startup accidentally built a crazy efficient solar panel

Back in 2015, Olivier Momma and Rick Scharnigg were two Dutch Business students who met on exchange in the US. The pair connected over their fascination with Kickstarter campaigns and a deep frustration with... awkward, bulky wallets. It wasn’t long until they decided to combine the two and try their luck with a product of their own.

After moving back home to the Netherlands, the young founders teamed up with their friend, Richard Canneman, and founded Ekster. The trio set to work designing a smart wallet that would meet their needs: slim, functional, and chic. Its flagship feature was a tracker connected to an app on your phone that would immediately allow you to locate your wallet if it was lost. Designing the tracker, however, turned out to be one of the biggest product design headaches. They knew the answer could be solar power but how do you charge a solar panel if it’s inside someone’s pocket most of the time?

Looking for answers, they teamed up with a Rotterdam-based innovation consultant, TWTG to combine “Ekster’s vision with TWTG’s expertise,” as Olivier described it. The result? Not only did they invent a solution for Ekster's wallet trackers, the solar panel they created turned out to barely need any sunlight at all making it the most efficient solar panel in the world.  

“The solar panel we developed needs roughly three hours of charging to last two months and it can even be charged under a table — it will pull light from anywhere as long as it’s not pitch black,” said Olivier with pride. DHL and FedEX are already using this technology for tracking purposes and the solar panels are being implemented in digital displays across the Netherlands.

Ekster's founders. From left to right: Richard, Rick, and Olivier

Developing an ultra-efficient solar panel is not the only spectacular achievement Ekster has under its belt. They’re also the biggest smart wallet company in the world and have attracted attention from media outlets such as Forbes and CBS News. So, how did they manage to accomplish so much so quickly?

From Kickstarter to... Kickstarter

Ekster’s beginnings are truly the story of entrepreneurship in the digital age: two 22-year-olds taking on an entire industry with a Kickstarter campaign. “We thought it was amazing that thanks to Kickstarter you could start a business without any experience or funding and we really wanted to give it a go,” explained Olivier.

Ekster’s first product was a smart wallet that combined cutting-edge tracking technology with a classy leather look associated with a traditional wallet. It was an instant hit. Within days, the Kickstarter campaign went viral in the US, breaking the million dollar mark and making Ekster a recognized brand overnight.

The solar-powered tracker can be connected to a smartphone app allowing you to locate your wallet anytime

Since then, Ekster has released two more generations of smart wallets, expanded their offering to phone cases, and significantly grown their team: they joined TQ with four people in 2017 and now have 15 team members.

We thought it was amazing that thanks to Kickstarter you could start a business without any experience or funding and we really wanted to give it a go.

But despite their huge success and brand recognition, the startup still used Kickstarter to launch their newest Ekster 3.0 wallet. When I asked Olivier why they stuck to their crowdfunding roots, he explained: “We use Kickstarter because it gives you crucial feedback from the market: people tell you which features and colors they like before you even start production. Plus, it’s money up front which has allowed us to scale without outside investment.”

So, what exactly makes a smart wallet ‘smart’?

Ekster products completely forgo the traditional notion of a bi-fold wallet. You insert your cards through an opening at the top and simply push the trigger button to eject them: they slide out just slightly so you can easily grab the one you need.

The newly-launched Ekster 3.0 features a tracker powered by the advanced solar panel that Ekster and TWTG developed. Thanks to the tracker, you can locate your lost wallet through an app on your phone or even enable a separation alert that will notify you whenever you’re too far from it. Something handy for the absent-minded amongst us.

Even with the new technology behind them, wallets might soon become redundant. With phone payments becoming more and more popular, there’s a good chance we’ll stop using cash and cards altogether in the future. But, whatever comes next for everyday carry products, we can be sure Ekster will be at the forefront of the developments.

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