Superpedestrian Starts Selling “Copenhagen Wheel” Electric Bike Kits

At first glance, this square-faced building about a mile from the MIT campus doesn’t look like the kind of place that’s fixing the future of urban transportation. Not until the doors swing open and a guy zips into the street, piloting a bike that sports a big red disc affixed to the rear wheel.

This is the headquarters of Superpedestrian, a small company producing a new kind of electric-motor bicycle kit licensed from the urban futurists and engineers just down the street at MIT.

In this era of technology entrepreneurship—with investors and founders focused on the notion that software is “eating the world”—this is the rare startup office where Macbooks and whiteboards share space with racks of clanging tools and Lava soap in the washroom.

If all goes as planned, this space will soon be cranking out hundreds of Superpedestrian’s products: those red-disc equipped rear bike wheels, housing a sophisticated battery-powered drive system built with U.S.-made parts that can connect to the Internet to learn about its owner’s riding habits.

“This is a limited edition, handmade unit by us for the first 1,000” early adopters, says Assaf Biderman, Superpedestrian’s founder. “And we’re doing this because we want to have an absolute understanding of how each and every unit that comes out of here rides.”

Superpedestrian first showed off its creation in late October, announcing that it had raised $2.1 million in venture financing from Spark Capital and Tumblr founder David Karp. While the company was new, the technology itself had been around for a few years, debuting as the “Copenhagen wheel” in 2009 as a project of MIT’s Senseable City Laboratory.

It’s hardly the first electric-assist bicycle kit out there, with several battery-powered competitors already available. There are also plenty of options already on the market for people who want to buy a full-on, electric-powered bike.

The Copenhagen wheel technology, however, is touted by the company as something different, and a real step forward. Once swapped in for the standard rear wheel, it gives riders a boost by spinning the electric drive into motion when the pedals are pumped. The Copenhagen wheel can also recharge its batteries during braking or downhill riding by converting the slowed-down turns of the wheel into electricity, similar to how hybrid cars generate new juice.

Those batteries are contained entirely within the wheel—making them more aerodynamic, as opposed to some other battery-powered cycles that require a separate battery pack strapped onto the frame. The wheel is also packed with a dozen sensors that can track torque, rotational velocity, linear acceleration, and more.

The whole thing also can connect to a smartphone, giving the rider a chance to connect software apps, track their rides, and even control the power being supplied by the wheel.

“For example, we have a mode which is called `Flatten My City.’ So it recognizes when a hill comes, and makes it feel almost like before you went on that hill” by kicking in an electric motor boost, Biderman says. “And when you ride downhill, it makes it also feel almost like it is to ride on a plane—charging your batteries at the same time. So you can think about it as leaving topography for the motor.”

Biderman, who’s also an associate director of the MIT Senseable City Lab, sees the Superpedestrian device as bridging part of the gap between people who want to live in cities but can’t seem to fit bicycling into their daily commute.

“The cities we live in were built primarily in the last hundred years. And, therefore, they’re to the scale of the automobile,” he says. “People are looking for an alternative for at least some of their car rides—to enjoy, to stay fit, to connect again with the street, with the city they live in, rather than being boxed up or being stuck in traffic. You really see that desire, but there’s no alternative.

“So what we are looking to do is offer an alternative that looks great … that feels great to ride—you ride it just like you ride any other bike.”

As of today, the small Cambridge, MA-based company is taking orders for its first run of Copenhagen wheels and revealing more detailed specifications about its design. You can check out the full list of specs on the company’s website, but among the highlights are its 12-pound weight, range of 30 miles at up to 20 mph, and $699 price tag—competitive with many of today’s commuter bikes that get by only on human pedal power.

Interestingly, it’s not the only such device on the market. A New York-based startup called FlyKly has raised about $700,000 on Kickstarter for its own “smart wheel” electric-assist bike kit. It looks quite a bit like the Superpedestrian device, and appears to boast many of the same benefits.

Asked about the competing FlyKly product, Biderman notes Superpedestrian is the “exclusive” licensee of the MIT patents on the Copenhagen wheel.

“I don’t know if these guys at FlyKly are infringing on our patents because I haven’t looked inside. But from the outside it looks a bit similar,” he says. “Their founder actually dropped by our lab at MIT a year and a half ago, saying he wants to collaborate, and spent quite some time with the Copenhagen wheel team. We’ll leave it at that.”

For a feel-good kind of product, that makes it sound like there’s also some potentially ruthless business competition at hand in the electric-assist bike-wheel market. Which makes it pretty much like anything else in the cutthroat world of early stage companies.

In the meantime, the Superpedestrian crew is eyeing its plans for ramping up production well beyond that first “boutique” run of 1,000 wheels, with assembly potentially happening at a partner’s location in Massachusetts. And if you were going to place a bet on where this kind of innovation would take off, you could do worse than the Boston area—a place where bicycling is popular, and where the hardware and engineering knowledge needed to make such a product is abundant.

“We are using the knowledge built of the world of design, and the world of urbanism, and the world of robotics,” Biderman says. “And there’s such high-quality personnel here for that—-such creative thinkers and doers.”

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