We’ve had a lot of fun over the past few weeks sharing more about the Flit ebike with those of you who have been following us for the last 3 years. There have been highs and lows, sometimes progress has been steady and deliberate and at others we have had lots of big announcements to share in a rush. For those who are newer to Flit, this week we wanted to summarise what the journey has looked like so far and what we hope to achieve in the near future.
Beginning in Beijing
Dave and Alex started the Flit project when they met while studying in Beijing, improving their Mandarin and getting to grips with one of the most complex countries in the world. They had both spent time in industry, Dave working for Jaguar Landrover and the TTP Group around the UK, and Alex working for OC&C Strategy Consultants in London. They bonded over a few things: both had become disenchanted with working for big organisations that seemed slow to address some of the most pressing and interesting challenges facing society; both were particularly interested in how electric vehicle technology looked set to transform the way people get around cities; and both were big fans of cycling.
Alex and Dave at the Great Wall
We started out working on components for electric urban micro cars that are being developed all over the world. But after a year of developing an interesting new type of kinetic energy recovery system (basically a way to recover energy lost in braking during stop-start city traffic and use it to accelerate the vehicle again without using up precious energy in the battery), we came to accept that, although a lot of these vehicles are being developed and they hold a lot of promise for improving congestion, pollution and safety, it would take years, if not decades, for the regulations and infrastructure to settle into place and these vehicles to become common in our cities.
Switching to ebikes
But we weren’t ready to give up. We really liked working together and were learning a lot from building new tech and getting stuck into public policy debates. Our experience so far had galvanised us, making us more determined to contribute to improving the way that people get around cities. So we returned to what some see as an old piece of technology: the humble bicycle. Both of us had spent years travelling around cities from London to Beijing by bike, and Alex had cycled across the US and China on his road bike. We were also really excited by what maturing technology was doing for ebikes. With lithium-ion batteries improving and coming down in cost every year, and new ranges of motors coming out for all sorts of different bike designs, ebike sales in Europe had grown from 0.1 million in 2006 to 1.6 million in 2016. The evidence that we were seeing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get more people out of cars and riding bikes was hard to ignore.
It’s time for a new generation of ebikes
We were particularly interested in how these advances in the underlying tech could be used to solve the problem of multimodality: how people move around complex cities using different forms of transport (eg. bus, train, etc) in a single journey, particularly with a bike for those awkward in-between journey legs. We’ve all heard the promises made by autonomous cars, e-scooters, and drones, each claiming to be the magic bullet that solves all of our urban transport woes. We started off accepting that transport systems are too complex to solve with a single idea. Instead, we wanted to develop an ebike that would give people as much flexibility and choice as possible in our existing transport networks. Folding bikes have traditionally done this job, and a number of folding ebikes have emerged as variations on this theme. But these electric cousins have usually been retrofits (they take a traditional folding bike design and adding a battery and motor) which have ended up being too heavy, too bulky, and, frankly, too ugly to be desirable. If we were going to get more people riding, they would have to want to do it. By starting with a blank sheet of paper and designing a folding bike meant to be electric from conception, we knew that we could offer something with fewer compromises.
We had a few ideas for how to engineer this type of ebike, but also recognised early on that we would need help to make it a beautiful product that people would feel proud to ride. That’s when we met David Turpin, an industrial designer who had 20+ years experience of working on consumer electronics. David joined the team and quickly fit right in, taking Dave’s mechanical designs and turning them into simple, elegant shapes that worked together as a seamless whole.
Cambridge: a beautiful cycling city stuffed full of smart engineers, what’s not to like?
Coming home to Cambridge
The next step was deciding where to base ourselves. We knew that we wanted to come back to Europe as the epicentre of the growing ebike revolution, and that we wanted to be near talented engineers who could help us to develop our early concepts. In the summer of 2016 we settled on Cambridge and named the company Hinton Bikes after the suburb of Cherry Hinton where we were living at the time. As the UK’s cycling capital where more that a third of people cycle to work, with a thriving startup scene, and overflowing with talented young engineers, we felt at home in Cambridge right away.
With a new base and a bundle of ideas to share, Dave and Alex each put all of their savings into the business and quickly went out to find further support to make their early designs a reality. Our first partner in this was the Department for Transport which awarded us a grant through their Innovation Challenge Fund to develop our first prototype.
We quickly followed this up by securing support through two of the best startup programs in Cambridge: the Allia Future Business Centre, which has provided us with a home and community to work from; and Accelerate Cambridge at the Judge Business School’s Entrepreneurship Centre, which has given us access to some of the best mentors around and a great group of peers working on everything from agricultural drones to predicting the next Credit Crunch. Having this kind of commercial support helped us to make a whole series of decisions about what kind of company we wanted to build, and gave us valuable contacts to engineers who could help us to realise our plans.
The first prototype
After a year of R&D, including working with a very skilled prototyper in Essex (his previous projects included making the official torches for the 2012 London Olympics) we finished our first ebike in October 2017, just in time to reveal it at the Hello Tomorrow Global Summit in Paris. We had been selected as one of the top 50 mobility startups and were keen to start showing people our first working ebike. The reaction was good with a clear understanding that we need to start moving around cities in different ways, and an appetite to find companies that can build the products we need to do that.
Showcasing at the Hello Tomorrow Global Summit in Paris
Over the coming months, we were able to use our prototype to find support for the next steps of the project. First, we secured a place on the Design Council’s Design Spark hardware accelerator. This gave us specialist mentors who helped us to think beyond pure engineering design to better understand the point of view of everyone who would interact and ride the ebike, from those who build it, to those who sell and maintain it. From the start, we have wanted to build a business that people could rely on to help them get around their city. Making sure that we have considered these different perspectives helps us to design against problems before they present themselves to riders.
Around this time we also hired Joe Sherwood, a young University of Cambridge engineering graduate with a keen interest in cycling. During his time with us, Joe has helped to design a number of components on the ebike and has taken the lead on operational issues from compliance to logistics.
In the summer of 2018 we were lucky enough to be awarded follow-on funding when Design Spark finished. Deborah Meaden of Dragon’s Den fame presented Dave with the prize in a ceremony at the Design Museum in Kensington. This was shortly after we had also come third in a startup competition to find interesting hardware startups in the UK looking for manufacturing and supplier contacts in China. Although we went to Shenzhen for the international final of the competition, we didn’t end up using any of the suppliers that we met due in part to quality concerns, but also because impending EU tariffs on Chinese-made ebikes would have made it very difficult to work together fruitfully in the long term.
The long road to manufacturing
Next, with a new design and fresh resources, we went straight to the Eurobike trade show in Germany to find a manufacturing partner. Having spent much of the previous year working on prototyping in the UK, we had come to accept that we needed to work with bicycle manufacturing specialists to build the best possible ebike. Sadly, although we had come across many great bike frame builders in the UK who could work with steel and carbon fibre, we hadn’t been able to find anyone who could manufacture at volume in aluminium, our preferred material. Instead, we were at Eurobike to meet international bike manufacturers in one of the global clusters that excel in this industry. It quickly became apparent that the bike manufacturers in Taiwan were the best fit for our needs of deep bike manufacturing experience, quality, and flexibility.
Alex, Dave, and Joe meeting with a specialist fork manufacturer in Taiwan
After meeting with about a dozen suppliers, we settled on a medium-sized factory which specialises in unconventional aluminium bike designs. With 30 years of experience in the industry, we are confident that they will deliver a high level of quality, and their smaller size means that we can work together flexibly. As we began working together, this gave us many opportunities to spend time working in the factory alongside the manufacturer’s engineers, while also visiting some of the trade shows in Taiwan where suppliers of everything from battery packs to specialist washers and bearings gathered to show off their wares and haggle over deals and partnerships. It was here that we met our battery supplier: a specialist subsidiary of one of the world’s biggest computer manufacturers. Having spent months negotiating with dozens of different battery pack developers, we were extremely pleased to finally partner with a company which could not only build to the very highest standards, but which could also move quickly and flexibly with us as we finalised the design.
Manufacturing prep bears fruit
In November 2018, after an intensive month of Dave living in Taiwan and working every day with the manufacturer, we finished our first manufacturing prototype and brought it back to the UK in time to unveil it to Jesse Norman, the Minister of State for Transport, at the DfT’s Transport-Technology Innovation Showcase in the heart of London. In the meantime, we had also decided to change our name from Hinton Bikes to Flit for the simple reason that we wanted a name that we would be able to use in the long term and sadly weren’t able to trademark Hinton Bikes. Flit also better captures our core purpose of helping people to move around the city quickly and easily.
Final assembly of our first manufacturing prototype (Dave is the photographer)
This prototype was a big step forward for us and allowed us to begin a lot of tasks that we had previously planned, from doing our first test rides and demonstrations with ebike stores, through to designing manufacturing tooling and completing much of the testing for safety certification. Most importantly, the prototype proved that the final design worked very well, as multiple trips on it in Cambridge and London proved.
This gave us the confidence to hire our first full time member of staff beyond the core founding team. Gemma Moses joined the team to help get the word out after running her own business for a couple of years. She has quickly made an impact on the team by rebuilding the website, helping us to set up test rides, and enormously improving how we present the ebike (you can probably tell the date she started by flicking through our Instagram feed, there is a noticeable jump in quality…).
Taking everything we learned from the experience of developing the first prototype, we quickly began work on the next prototype, which refined a few design details and made improvements to the frame. For this, Dave made another trip to Taiwan to visit the factory and meet with component suppliers again at the 2019 Taipei Cycle show. This trip was an important one for deciding on a number of final details from frame colours and painting techniques to final brake lever selection. Soon afterwards, we took delivery of our last prototypes, painted, with fully wired electrical systems, and ready for the road.
The final prototype, ready for manufacturing
Getting ready for launch
Having had these prototypes in hand for a few weeks now, we are confident that we have an ebike that people want and, importantly for a startup like ours dealing with a complex product, that we know how to build. We have taken a slower and more deliberate path than a lot of similar startups, but it’s one which we feel has given us a deeper understanding of the problem we are solving and the issues that we are likely to face when completing final manufacturing. One big commitment that we have made has been to work with the manufacturer for a full year before manufacturing even begins. This has meant that we have gone through a lot of testing, helping us iron out most of the kinks that other startups face at this stage by dealing with them on our own time.
That’s the story up until now. The next phase for us now is to prepare for launch this summer. We have made good progress and will continue to share news through our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, as well as through our newsletter (below) where we will continue to share updates first.
Check back to find out more!