Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve seen either the FlyKly Smart Wheel or the Superpedestrian Copenhagen Wheel — probably somewhere in your Facebook News Feed. As an avid cyclist, I knew the first moment I saw the Copenhagen Wheel that I would buy one, but got pretty confused when FlyKly launched their Kickstarter campaign with what appeared to be a carbon copy of the Copenhagen Wheel. These two very similar e-bike products are great examples of different ways to bring an innnovative new product to market. Their stories gave me the opportunity to learn more about some key areas of product development — funding, IP, community, and product development teams.
This is three part series focusing on the differences between the Smart Wheel (above left) and the Copenhagen Wheel (above right) and how their founders chose to develop, launch, and market their products. Right off the bat, I’ll tell you that even though it’s four pounds lighter and compatible with my brand new Pebble watch, I won’t touch the well-branded FlyKly wheel with a ten foot pole. Now, let’s get into why.
Electric bicycles, or e-bikes, couple human and electric power. In the US, to be classified as a bicycle — thus avoiding rules and regulation — the motor can’t propel the bike over 20 mph. E-bikes can be purpose built with electronic equipment, or a consumer can add a battery, motor, and controls to his/her existing bike. E-bikes have the potential to revolutionize how people commute.
Sadly, in the US, most people just don’t get excited about e-bikes for a number of reasons. For those of us, myself included, that are snobby and ride good looking, fast bikes, most complete e-bikes available are gross. They’re clunky looking — with really obvious motors and batteries — and they’re just awkward. The last thing I want is a another button to push while I ride! More bikes these days are using pedal assist, thank goodness, which scales motor power with pedal input. It’s amazing — as you pedal harder, the motor adds more juice without the need to push a button, tricking you into thinking you’re actually strong. If you don’t want to sweat, you don’t have to. Tired from all that mouse clicking while driving CAD? No problem. While this isn’t new technology, several innovators are combining pedal assist with good design, and we’re starting to see beautiful e-bikes with clean lines, concealed motors and batteries, and intuitive UI. The Faraday Porteur, shown below, is a prime example.
But, if you don’t want to shell out $6,000 for a fancy new bike (and won’t ride an ugly bike), then your other option is to custom build your own e-bike. This means adding power assist on a frame and spec of your choosing, which can be a lot of work and historically means strapping a bulky battery somewhere on your frame. Ideally I’d be able to purchase an easy to install kit that allows me to beautifully add pedal assist — making me feel like Lance Armstrong (on drugs).
Luckily, in late 2009 the SENSEable City Lab at MIT revealed technology that made easy pedal assist installation a reality. They debuted the Copenhagen Wheel, an all-in-one wheel package that converts an existing bicycle to an e-bike. The wheel provides pedal assist in a decent looking package. With everything contained in the wheel the whole kit can be installed by simply changing your wheel — no strapping batteries to your frame and no controls. If you couldn’t guess already, this is a big deal! Sadly, this wheel wasn’t available for sale, so I got to drool over it but couldn’t actually purchase it.
Then, this past October, similar technology was offered to the public for the first time with a Kickstarter campaign for the FlyKly Smart Wheel. There was some confusion – is this the Copenhagen Wheel? The similarities were unmistakable, but FlyKly made no mention of the Copenhagen Wheel (and still doesn’t). At the same time as FlyKly’s launch, a new company called Superpedestrian announced $2.1 million in VC funding to commercialize and produce MIT’s Copenhagen Wheel. No product details or timelines were revealed.
Not to anyone’s surprise, FlyKly’s Kickstarter campaign was successful, raising about $600K past their $100K goal. Like me, people were really excited about the possibility of adding pedal assist to a bike by simply changing their wheel. Soon after the end of FlyKly’s campain, Superpedestrian began offering pre-orders of the Copenhagen Wheel. FlyKly’s Kickstarter campaign was over and I still wasn’t sure which company I should be supporting and which wheel I wanted on my bike.
To help me make my decision about these two really similar products I started comparing specs. By physical specifications, these wheels are super similar. Both offer an all-in-one wheel package with regenerative braking that provides pedal assist to any compatible bicycle. Both link up to a smartphone for wheel settings and data collection, and both encourage community participation in developing apps for the wheel and sharing data collected while riding. FlyKly’s wheel is several pounds lighter and singlespeed only, but offers 250 watts of assist, 100 less than the Copenhagen Wheel, which is also compatible with 9/10 speed cassettes. The Smart Wheel pre-orders for $599, the Copenhagen Wheel for $699.
As an engineer, I’ll refrain from commenting on the industrial design of the two options. 😉 Any designers out there want to offer an opinion?
I’m going to buy one of these wheels — I can’t help myself. I’m happy to run singlespeed, and the 30% weight reduction on the FlyKly is very significant (especially because it’s rotating wheel weight). While I insist on a quality product, though, I also want to support continued bicycle innovation. I dug deeper into the two companies, and after further examination, I’ll definitely buy Superpedestrian’s Copenhagen Wheel.
Did you buy a FlyKly wheel? They’ll probably sell well on eBay if you hurry. Not convinced? That’s okay, I’ll guide you through the process I went through to assess. These companies give us a unique opportunity to examine four aspects that influence innovation — funding, IP, community, and development teams.