The Fugu is a suitcase full of possibilities.
Currently encased in bright, neon green — it’s still deep in lab mode — it’s a patented suitcase that inflates and expands with the help of a pump, revealing sturdy shelves for easy packing, and a portable table top for balancing a laptop and cup of coffee.
“It’s the perfect carry-on for shoppers and business travelers,” said its creator, Isaac Atlas.
While Atlas came to the world of industrial design through his love of tinkering and inventing, it was a trip to the United States that made him into a luggage innovator.
He and his wife had bought too much, and, as usual, ended up buying another overpriced suitcase to hold everything they’d purchased. When they got home, he noticed that his new books were bent and battered.
“I can’t stand that,” said Atlas.
He started thinking about a solution, playing with an empty box of cornflakes. He believed that a suitcase should better fit a traveler’s changing needs.
From there, the Fugu, named for the Japanese pufferfish, was born.
Atlas, along with two partners, David Lifshitz and Daniel Gindis, worked on creating something that could stack and possibly hang clothing, functioning as a mini-closet and traveling office while folding up into a suitcase small and light enough that could be used as a carry-on.
“The whole idea is that it works as a carry-on,” said Atlas, “but with room to grow. That’s the innovation. And it has to work for every airline.”
Taking Atlas’s ideas, they outsourced most of the heavy design work to an industrial design company. They knew the walls had to be inflatable yet sturdy, and the outer casing had to be strong, light, and made of a cost-effective material that didn’t weigh more than the standard allowance for carry-ons.
They decided on ABS plastic for the outer casing, a “cheap and sturdy” polycarbonate, said Gindis. The walls are three times as thick as regular cloth, and made from a tough fiber material that can’t be punctured but is flexible enough to fold down when the walls aren’t inflated.
They also had other dreams, such as a hanging suit rack, an insulated area for keeping food cold and one handle rather than the current set of two. But that required even more funding, and that’s been an ongoing challenge.
The Fugu team got its first infusion of cash from a private angel investor, someone Atlas knew who has funded them periodically throughout the venture. They initially sold him the idea using Atlas’ design made out of the cornflakes cereal box.
They were also granted another NIS 200,000 (around $50,000) by the Office of the Chief Scientist, an infusion of cash that helped them at a crucial moment.
Atlas said that he and his partners have not drawn salaries yet, and were working in other full-time jobs until recently.
They decided to launch a crowdfunding Kickstarter campaign in order to perfect the suitcase’s standard features and possibly add those other, more unique features, depending how much they raised.
Launched toward the end of November, the starting goal was $50,000, and the campaign has already gone over $320,000. There are two backers who pledged $10,000 each to meet with the Fugu founders and receive a full suitcase package when it’s ready; as well as backers who have pledged anywhere from $219 to $2,200 in exchange for a basic Fugu suitcase or larger packages including more than one suitcase, a laptop case and other items.
“They’re the early adapters,” said Atlas. “They want to know they were one of the first to have it.”
They hope to have the first suitcases ready in about eight months.
The process hasn’t all been smooth. There was an early trip to a luggage trade show in Arizona, when the hand pump stopped working and Atlas had to blow up the inflatable walls with his mouth, carrying the suitcase around from vendor to vendor.
“We looked ridiculous,” said Atlas. “But we still showed that it worked.”
That early demo also earned them a series of meetings with luggage giant Samsonite, although they ultimately decided to go their own way. Luggage, they say, is a conservative industry.
“They want to stay with what works,” said Gindis. “That’s why there hasn’t been anything this new in years.”
These guys seem to feel they have nothing to lose. They’re talking about manufacturing the first 10,000 suitcases in China, which is the main stop for luggage makers, although there are niche manufacturers in the US and Germany.
For now, though, they have some final tinkering to do. The inflatable walls have to be pushed back farther into the outer walls of the suitcase, and the pump needs to be finessed.
At our cafe demonstration, Gindis relied on a temporary foot pump, the kind used for inflatable kiddie pools, to inflate the suitcase.
“This has to go back to the lab,” said Atlas. “We’re not quite there yet.”
He’s not worried, though.
“When people see our video on Facebook,” he said, “they say, ‘Where can I buy this?’”