It would be hard to come up with a shakier scenario for testing a prototype electric skateboard: slick sidewalks from recent rain, journalist who has never been on a longboard before, snow starting to blow, and a test course shared with bikers. The skateboard was designed by Dash Electric, a Boston startup founded by Northeastern University student Ian Carlson. Last month, Dash raised $15,000 in initial funding from Rough Draft Ventures, a student-run venture team that invests money on behalf of General Catalyst Partners, a Cambridge firm.
While companies like E-Glide and Boosted already build skateboards outfitted with motors, they’re pretty pricey: Boosted’s product line starts at $999. Carlson says he wants to design a product that can be added to any board, and would cost between $300 and $400. His vision is that when you go to buy a longboard from a website or skateboard shop, it’d be easy to specify Dash’s kit as an option.
Who are electric skateboards for? If you ask Carlson, a third year student at Northeastern, he says one market is people who already have boards and use them as transportation. “For them, it’s an upgrade to their existing commute,” he says. “You can speed up and slow down with traffic, and be at a constant speed. It makes your commute a lot faster.” Also, “the brakes are a big thing,” allowing riders to control their speed better as they descend hills. Carlson says the biggest market “is the 17-to-29-year old city person who walks, bikes, or takes the T to work.” It’s easy to bring a longboard on the T for that “last mile” of the trip to work, or to bring it up to the office in the elevator. But he acknowledges that reaching that larger market of urban commuters will be a “harder sell.”
Dash’s initial design adds a single motor and drive belt attached to one of the rear wheels. Right now, it uses an off-the-shelf wireless remote control with a pistol grip to adjust speed or put on the brakes; Carlson says he’ll use some of the new funding to hire someone to make a smaller, more intuitive controller.
Last week, we went to the Southwest Corridor Park near Northeastern for a demo. Carlson, left, told me that the acceleration was a little abrupt, and advised me to get rolling on the board first before engaging the motor. He also recommended being gentle with the trigger that controls the speed. At that point, I was fully expecting to get tossed from the board, so I donned a bike helmet that Carlson had brought along, and buttoned up my leather coat for protection. While I’m an avid snowboarder, I hadn’t been on a longboard before… and did I mention the sidewalks were dotted with puddles from recent rain?
After getting off to a smooth start on a straightaway, I goosed the motor a little and felt it push me forward; the brakes came on nice and gentle when I pushed the trigger forward. But suddenly, both acceleration and brakes stopped working. Carlson ran over, made a quick adjustment with an Allen wrench, and I got back on. That second, longer ride was great. The motor meant that I didn’t have to kick at all for propulsion, and it easily pushed me up a small hill. The brakes gave me a nice sense of control if I got going too fast. I did not take a header off the board, and even felt enough in control to start steering and take a few turns.
After about five minutes riding the Dash, I was seriously considering an electric longboard as a better mode of transport for short trips around town — no locking or unlocking a bike, no pegging your pants leg so it doesn’t get grease-stained, no showing up to meetings with a sheen of sweat. I’m also eager to try a more refined version of Dash’s controller. (Yes, I took off the bike helmet before Carlson snapped this pic of me on the board…)
“Most of our investments are made based on people, and Ian is impressive,” says David Oates, a fellow Northeastern undergrad student who sits on Rough Draft’s investment committee. “The board is also a pleasure to ride. I have only been on a longboard a few times and never without injury, but I was able to hop on Dash and feel like a complete badass, totally in control.”
Carlson says he’ll be doing a co-op next semester with the prosthetics startup BETH. (It’s located at Bolt, a hardware-oriented accelerator program in Downtown Crossing.) But Carlson also plans to spend his spare time making more Dash prototypes “for extended testing.” And he says he hopes to launch a crowdfunding campaign for the first batch of production boards sometime in 2015.
Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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