Driven by Curiosity


Driven by Curiosity

By: Jóhann Páll Ástvaldsson
Rafnar Össur Kristinsson

The ever driven and innovative Össur Kristinsson attacks the high seas in his newest venture, as he aims to redefine the fundamentals of seakeeping. Össur has consistently created something out of nothing in his career, touching down in a variety of fields as he goes wherever his mind takes him. In his trail lies the global prosthetics giant Össur, while nowadays his focus is wholly on the marine company Rafnar, whose revolutionary ÖK Hull looks to change the meaning of ‚smooth sailing‘.

Business with a personal touch

Össur Kristinsson is an inventor, creator, designer, and businessman all rolled into one. An unassuming figure, he has spent most of his career largely out of the public eye. His attention is always completely focused on the project at hand, in whatever field he has chosen to make strides in. He is personable and charming in his own quirky way, showcasing every facet of the world-class facility in Kópavogur, where the hull manufacturing company Rafnar calls its home.

Born in 1943, one of Össur’s legs was 15 centimetres shorter than the other. This would prove to be an inspiration, as well a running theme for his life, as his own personal experience shaped his career. At twenty years old he went abroad to study orthopaedics in Sweden, where the seeds were sown for the orthopaedic manufacturer Össur hf., which was founded in 1971. Össur, the man that is, is constantly pressing on, probing, looking to push the boundaries. His projects have not been without their doubters, yet it is always Össur who comes out on top. He is a hands-on owner, who has set his own benchmarks. Össur was an innovator before innovation became the standard, for which he received the Knight’s Cross of the Icelandic Order of the Falcon, the highest honour in Icelandic society. Össur‘s heart has always stayed at home, choosing to situate the manufacturing facilities in Iceland, even though the market for his products have largely been abroad. That is the epitome of Össur – it is clear his own personal world has influenced the vision of his companies.

Rafnar – smooth sailing in the North Atlantic

Rafnar‘s stated goal is no small aim, as the company aims to redefine the accepted fundamentals of seakeeping. To be frank, it appears that the company has the boat and statistics to prove it. The results from test „drives“ have been unequivocally positive as the innovative ÖK Hull design gives seafarers the smoothes possibly available on the high seas. Founded in 2005 by Össur himself, Rafnar introduced its first boat in 2015 after 10 years of painstaking progress as hundreds of prototypes were towed. The designs are based on Össurs own personal design, which were inspired by the Swedish designer Fredrik Ljungström. The name is derived from Hrafnagil, the place where his wife‘s grandfather called home, while Norse mythology certainly plays its part. Rafnar hit the winning formula with the revolutionary ÖK Hull design, Össur started Rafnar himself in his basement pool, testing out various models armed with rope, a towing camera, and a camera. The company has grown from its humble beginnings, as boats using the ÖK Hull design are now used by the Icelandic Coast Guard as well as Icelandic Search and Rescue Teams. The rough North Atlantic, right on the doorstep of the Rafnar shipyard, has proven to be the perfect testing ground for the ÖK Hull.

Rafnar and Össur – one and the same?

Össur is very hands on, as he can explain everything from the physics of the hull to how the marketing department works in astounding detail. He walks around with us in the Rafnar facility and it is clear he is involved in every stage of the process. His enthusiasm for Rafnar is apparent, as his passion and belief for the project shine through. Össur says there are many similarities with Össur hf. and Rafnar. For one, it is highly advanced technical work in a market which is difficult to breach into. Both products need to be proven before they are put into practical use and showcased to buyers in conservative markets. Furthermore, there are huge start-up costs involved as research and development take place over years. That being said, there is huge potential for growth abroad for Rafnar, while at the same time there is an incredibly small market in Iceland. That was precisely the case with Össur, which has grown exponentially in the last decades. Rafnar has recently made huge strides in the yachting world, as their boats lend themselves perfectly both for smaller gigs, as well as larger yachts in the future.

Broken backs no more

But why is the ÖK Hull so groundbreaking? Well, in layman‘s terms it provides previously unattainable seakeeping and comfort. The hull is symmetric which ensures that a boat fitted with the ÖK Hull does not produce a wake. The hull works in a similar way as the wing of a Formula 1 car, as it creates pressure that pushes the boat down. This means better handling, efficiency, and speed, but not least reduced slamming of the boat. It has been garnering great interest in the maritime community, as its benefits are clear for all to see, for leisure activities but especially search and rescue operations. Take, for example, the case of the Swedish navy. It takes three whole years to fully train a commander of a speedboat, yet the career lifespan of those commanders is only five years due to back injuries incurred from slamming. The same is true of the United States Navy, where 65% of those working on speedboats incur an injury, with 90% of those injuries sustained in the first two years on duty. Research from the University of Iceland shows that there is a 95% reduction in wave slamming impacts when using the ÖK Hull, compared to speedboats equipped with the classic hull design. „Many do not have an understanding of the sea. The sea is hard rock“, Össur states matter of factly.

Össur - the company behind the man

Iceland was not exactly a hotbed of innovation at the time of the foundation of Össur hf. But by diving head first into the project, fuelled by his passion and drive, he built the company up from the ground in the coming decades. Össur hf. is currently a world leader in prosthetics and orthotics, with an annual turnover of approximately 500 million $. The company sponsors top paraplegic athletes, such as Paralympians and world record holders Jody Cundy and Sarah Reinertsen. It was not smooth sailing from the start, however, as Össur had to mortgage his house to keep the business afloat at one point in time. It would prove to be worth it as Össur looks at the company with pride, yet he has closed that chapter in his life and is now looking towards the future.

This is part of an article originally published in Iceland Review, April - March issue 2018.

Iceland Review is the longest running English-language magazine presenting Iceland, in continuous print since 1963. Published six times per year, the magazine includes features and photographs on Iceland’s community, culture, and nature. Subscribers will soon enjoy digital access to Iceland Review’s back issues: a treasure chest of photos and articles.

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