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Historians still debate the origins of origami – the recreational paper folding technique. In our times, it has become more than a dedicated pastime craft, as NASA engineers got inspired by it to design exploration rockets. Coming to more down-to-earth reinterpretations of origami, Levante is an Italian start-up that used origami’s principles to create a foldable and portable solar panel. 

The idea was born in the minds of Sara Plaga and Kim-Joar Myklebust, partners in life and business, both in love with sailing and camping. Their need to produce green energy at every moment – whether off the Mediterranean coast or on top of the Alps – prompted them to design something new that could positively impact the environment.

“We decided to start the company as our first daughter was born,” recalls Sara Plaga. “It took a few years for us to have her. At that time, we did not want to get back to our employee jobs but to be the ones to decide how much time to spend with her. My husband and I felt invincible and decided to start Levante.”

Flexible by nature

Being two meters long and a meter and a half wide when open, the panel can produce as much as 300 watts/hour to power Sara and Kim’s camper appliances. Weighting about 10 kilograms and being easily foldable, the panel is as portable as any other camping gear. While folded, the device can still generate energy – about 50 watts/hour.

Camping and sailing both involve a good deal of adaptability to different scenarios. Plaga and Myklebust translated this spirit into their product too. “We wanted the panel to be as modular as possible. Think of a GoPro: one buys the accessories to fit the purpose. Similarly, we made the device adaptable to the user’s needs. More solar modules can be added and interchanged without throwing away the framework – for more powerful ones, for instance.”

Moreover, the origami solar panel can be installed and operated autonomously. In the case of a camper, a couple of cables connect it to the vehicle’s battery. Meant for travel, it can still work as a green energy source in household balconies, too – when installing solar modules on the roof is not an option.

Testing on a famous sailing boat 

Coherent to their adventurous spirit, Levante’s co-founders chose an unusual way of testing their prototype. As part of their experimentation phase, they cooperated with Dan and Kika, a couple living in an electric-converted boat – Uma. Besides cruising around the seas, the duo has a YouTube channel – Sailing Uma – with over 400,000 subscribers, where they publish video content on their life and adventures around the waters.

“Kim and I ourselves followed – and supported – Sailing Uma,” explains Plaga. “Coincidentally, we needed to test our prototype. Trying it out in a vessel was the best benchmark we could test it in as if the technology would work there – confronted with saltiness and wind – it would perform well in any other condition. We reached out to them, and they immediately offered to collaborate. Last summer, we spent a month on their boat, working on the prototype.”

On the Sailing Uma channel, a few videos show the work on the prototype of the origami solar panel, as the boat became a floating lab for the technology. To this day, the two YouTubers are part of the development team, as they are the ones who test new versions of the panel. Moreover, the collaboration helped create more awareness about the project and attract the first customers. “We received 10 pre-orders, all by people who intend to use the panel on their boat,” Plaga adds.

Prototype testing on Uma. – © Sailing Uma

Making an impact 

Currently, the start-up is tweaking the last details on its origami solar panel to start delivering the first models in April. Further data from these early adopters will be vital in progressing the project. Levante decided to produce its solar panels in Italy, using recycled materials from the automotive industry – like carbon fiber- that will be used in the next solar panel version.

Moving to Italy to design cars was Kim Myklebust’s dream, which he immediately confessed to Sara, as they met during a concert in Denmark in 2009. Myklebust eventually moved to Italy from Norway to study in Milan and then work in the industry he dreamed of. Yet, after years of working as a designer, he and Sara – who became his wife – understood it was time for them to do something for the planet. As they step down from their job positions, their savings financed Levante. The name choice refers to the Italian word for where the sun rises and for a new start for the couple. 

Levante participated in several accelerator programs, sparking interest in the Italian state-owned investor Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP). Thanks to their investment, the start-up has a structured team and can rely on external help to develop the product. Nonetheless, the company will launch a Kickstarter campaign in the upcoming months to broaden its customer list and promote the technology outside of Italy.

Scaling up 

However spontaneous and genuine the Levante initiative might be, taking part in a few accelerator initiatives was paramount to refining the concept. “Engaging in these programs gave us the right mindset and the network to progress. Trivially, being used to employee jobs, we did not have the skills to test and develop a product. Not to mention that we were not experts in photovoltaic technology either,” Plaga explains.

Two years after daring to try, Levante will launch a premium portable solar panel – costing €2400. “Competing with the market by offering a lower price was not an option, so we offer a product with high-quality design and materials. Besides, we want to establish a one-on-one connection with our customers,” says Plaga.

As Levante envisions new technological developments, growth, and a potential shared use of the panels, 2023 will be a clutch moment for the company. Meanwhile, Sara and Kim – and their two daughters – will not give up on their desire to travel the world with their camper, as they will put more effort into their venture.

In the cover picture: Plaga and Myklebust posing with their daughters and the origami solar panel