Next-gen bike technology still pedaling uphill

CTO Dakota Decker and CEO Michael Burtov (L-R) with their GeoOrbital bike wheel, an electric-assist motorized wheel.
CTO Dakota Decker and CEO Michael Burtov (L-R) with their GeoOrbital bike wheel, an electric-assist motorized wheel.

The new bicycle wheel made its debut in 2009 at a United Nations climate change conference.

Encircling the hub of the wheel was a saucer-like red disk packed with sensors, a battery, and a motor — along with a Bluetooth connection allowing it to be controlled by an iPhone mounted on the handlebars.

Incubated in an MIT lab, the prototype was dubbed the Copenhagen Wheel because the city of Copenhagen sponsored its development. The promise was that a wheel with a built-in electric assist could be installed on the millions of bikes already on the road, making it far more appealing for people in cities to commute by bike, easing traffic and helping the environment. Hills would feel like flat ground, toting a toddler in back would be effortless, and your trip to the office would be not just quicker, but you’d arrive smelling better.

But more than six years after the debut of the Copenhagen Wheel, several companies are still huffing and puffing toward that utopian vision, including Cambridge-based Superpedestrian, which spun out of the MIT lab that initially designed the wheel.

The story of these new wheels is one more example of how tough it is to turn a potentially game-changing concept into widely-used product. Nearly $30 million has been invested in companies trying to bring electric wheels to market — though it’s still difficult to find one in your local bike shop. Prices in the neighborhood of $1,000 may also be a reason for consumers to think hard about a purchase.

The players in this new corner of the bicycle biz are also getting tangled up in litigation: MIT and Superpedestrian filed a patent infringement lawsuit in January against FlyKly of New York and ZeHus of Milan for selling variations on the Copenhagen wheel without licensing the patents.

FlyKly didn’t respond to requests for comment; ZeHus founder Giovanni Alli declined to comment.

Getting onto a bike outfitted with the Copenhagen Wheel is an amazing experience. It’s a bit like going to the gym on the moon and doing your usual workout. The effort involved in getting up to a cruising speed of 18 or 20 miles an hour feels like almost nothing — and you could maintain that speed all day.

In my test rides, I couldn’t feel a single sweat gland threatening to shift into production mode. You can use the smartphone on the handlebars to shift between higher and lower levels of assistance (and battery consumption), but it never feels like you’re just switching on a motor and laying off the pedals. The bike works in partnership with the rider.

One other nifty feature: the wheel recaptures energy when you brake or go downhill, in the same way some hybrid cars do. That refills the wheel’s lithium battery, extending your range. Superpedestrian says its wheel can travel up to 30 miles before it needs to be plugged in for a recharge. (A complete recharge takes about four hours.)
 A prototype of the Copenhagen Wheel displayed at Superpedestrian in Cambridge.

A prototype of the Copenhagen Wheel displayed at Superpedestrian in Cambridge. (Aram Boghosian for the Globe/File)

It’s easy to see how this kind of product might turn weekend cyclists into daily — or at least occasional — commuters. “For someone who has a specific barrier to overcome, like there’s a big hill between them and the office, or they don’t want to arrive sweaty, or they have some mobility issues, this can make biking more accessible,” says Galen Mook, a marketing and advocacy executive at Landry’s Bicycles, a Natick chain.

Mook adds that bicycle commuting has environmental and economic benefits: “It’s incredibly cheap, compared to transit passes or the cost of owning a car,” he says.

A Boston startup called Evelo has sold an electric wheel since last year, priced at $1,199 and up, depending on the range the battery can deliver. The lowest priced Evelo Omni Wheel has a range that tops out at 25 miles per hour, according to founder Boris Mordkovich. Evelo also sells complete electric-powered bikes — rather than just a wheel that can be installed on your existing bike — which account for about 80 percent of the company’s sales, says Mordkovich.

The company raised $750,000 from individual investors earlier this year, Mordkovich says, and will bring in “about $4 million in revenue” this year, he adds.

Michael Burtov, co-founder of another Cambridge startup, GeoOrbital, says his electric wheel is “production-ready,” and the company will begin selling it in small quantities next month.

Superpedestrian remains the biggest and best-funded player, with 35 employees in Cambridge. Last summer, it raised $21 million from the local venture capital firms General Catalyst and Spark Capital, bringing its total raised to about $27 million.

While it delivered a small number of wheels late last year to customers who placed pre-orders, chief executive Assaf Biderman says the company is still working to iron out technical issues and make sure the electronics packed into its wheel will be reliable. The price of the product has also climbed to $1,200 from $699 when Superpedestrian initially began talking specifics in 2013.

Biderman says the company will ramp up production in April and May, but already there is a “Copenhagen Wheel Customer Complaints” page on Facebook, where people who placed pre-orders have discussed alternative products that are already available. Mordkovich says that “on a weekly basis, we get a customer who cancelled their order from Superpedestrian and orders an Omni Wheel.”

The venture capitalists who have pumped millions into Superpedestrian are convinced its sleek design and simplicity will win over consumers — once the product is readily available. David Fialkow of General Catalyst predicts that the company’s best market will be “young commuters within 30 to 60 minutes of home to office.” At Spark, Santo Politi says that “the business becomes even more interesting as the product gets cheaper,” and more people get a chance to test-ride a bike outfitted with the Copenhagen Wheel.

Getting people to test-ride this next generation of bike technology is the next hill the companies will have to climb. At Evelo, Mordkovich admits, “Some bike stores are just not keen on carrying electric bikes. It doesn’t fit their philosophy. Others are in the wait-and-see mentality — and they’re a bit hesitant about working with new brands, because they don’t know what the support or service will be like.”

Carice Reddien, who owns the Bicycle Belle bike shop in Somerville, says she was initially skeptical about electric bikes and what she refers to as the “plug-and-play” electric wheels, but now believes they may “really make the difference between a bike almost being a car replacement for someone, and completely being a car replacement.”

But Reddien says we’re still in the early days, when there isn’t “a clear dominant player” that retailers want to carry, or consumers ask for. It could take five or 10 more years, she predicts, “but if they can figure it out and get the price point right, we’re going to sell a lot of them.”

Even for the whizziest new technologies, the road to widespread adoption can be long — and dotted with potholes.

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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