In this article, I tackle a question that many have, which is: who has what IP and who is behind these wheels? The differences between FlyKly and Superpedestrian help to illustrate what I consider to be the formula necessary for sustained innovation. The question I pose to you is this: which wheel are you going to buy?
Superpedestrian has what they say is the exclusive license to the Copenhagen Wheel patented by MIT’s SENSEable city lab (pictured above). The ‘exclusive’ bit means that FlyKly does not have this license. The MIT patent is titled, “Hybrid sensor-enabled wheel and associated systems, multi-hub wheel spoke systems, and methods of manufacturing and installing wheel spokes.” It looks like there’s a lot of tech protected in here, things like the neat way those spokes attach on the non-drive side and the use of the mobile device.
In contrast, what FlyKly has is an international patent (pictured above) for a rather specific type of “simple, easy, and small shaped” brushless motor. The motor, developed by an electronics firm based in Slovenia called Siop Elektronika, seems somewhat unique in its construction, thus allowing the smaller form factor and increased efficiency. These attributes would lead to a more efficient powered bicycle wheel.
What I take away from these patents is that SENSEable City Lab and Superpedestrian are actively innovating around bicycle systems and sensor integration, whereas FlyKly is using innovation from Siop Elektronika around “simple, easy, and small shape brushless motors.” FlyKly has claimed greater efficiency and reduced weight, but I want to present some numbers. Both wheels have the same range but different power outputs and weights: FlyKly has 71% the power of Superpedestrian and 69% the weight. If we assume that both wheels have an equal range when offering full power, then the difference of efficiency between the wheels is negligible because weight here simply scales proportional to power output. Because FlyKly’s wheel is less powerful, they need less battery power, which saves weight. It would appear that the patent that FlyKly is using contributes little to the quality of the product.
Ultimately, it’s my opinion that everything about a company and its IP emerges from the founders. I want to be clear — I’m not saying that they have complete control or that they are solely responsible for the fate of their companies, but the behavior, leadership style, and personality of the founder or founding team will have a fundamental influence on how the company behaves and functions. With this in mind, let’s see who’s behind each company.
Assaf Biderman, although it’s not immediately apparent from their website and marketing materials, is the lead behind Superpedestrian. My research on Biderman has turned up some presentations of research from the SENSEable lab, but that’s about it. He doesn’t have an entrepreneur’s background, but Superpedestrian has support from e-bike industry veteran Vincent Lamoureux. From Biderman’s experience as Associate Director of the SENSEable lab and the behind-the-scenes role he’s taking, I conclude that he likely has the management skills necessary to let talented people do what they do best. He, or someone he trusts, has assembled a team with solid technical backgrounds. End of story.
When asked about FlyKly and Niko Klansek (founder of FlyKly), Biderman always gives the same response (I heard it on NPR and this quote is copied from Xconomy), “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. …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.” This is a great response — no one’s being accused of doing anything wrong, but the facts are clearly presented. Klansek doesn’t deny ‘dropping by the lab,’ and the company tweeted the following in November:
To some degree, they’re right, but why doesn’t FlyKly founder Niko Klansek credit the Copenhagen Wheel for any part of his inspiration? Klansek is quoted as saying, “I got the feeling that there was nothing going forward, so I thought they had forgotten about this project.” I don’t think Klansek has done anything wrong here, but I don’t like the fact that he doesn’t acknowledge the Copenhagen Wheel or the SENSEable lab’s team for any help or inspiration. Ideas don’t just come out of thin air and we need to acknowledge that and give credit when it’s due. Instead, Klansek is marketing the idea as his own, when in reality, I think he ‘stole’ it in part from SENSEable, started producing it without proper attribution, and didn’t actually add to the design or functionality. I’ll give him credit for execution, but that’s it.
Klansek has an impressive history of involvement with successful Kickstarter projects. LLSTOL, ONDU, Lumu, Musguard. These are all beautiful, well marketed products that have strong backing and ship relatively (remarkably) on-time to backers. That’s amazing! I’ve always thought Musguard is a great idea and beautifully executed. I don’t want to undermine these successes, but when I fork over $600 for a smart wheel I want to support more than a one-hit-wonder kickstarter project. While there are certainly other players involved, I don’t see Klansek sticking with any one project or company long enough to develop it to the point of sustainability and continued innovation. While obviously talented, what I really want is to see what happens when Klansek focuses his energy on one thing.
Klansek’s team listed on their about page has changed somewhat in the last few months. Previously, it included a number of engineers from the electronics firm Siop Elektronika. These guys are no longer listed, but as they seem to be the development team I hope they’re still working on the project! Currently, the about page lists web, software, and design talent, but little for hardware or manufacturing. For the purpose of continued innovation, it’s going to be important to have hardware/manufacturing folks working closely with the rest of the team. I also find it a little alarming that the team seems to have shifted, but I understand how things could change when the project gets real.
Superpedestrian is a team formed by MIT staff using technology developed at MIT. FlyKly is a semi-permanent group of developers led by a Kickstarter professional that has borrowed technology from MIT and released a product without significant improvement. So once again, my question to you is: which wheel are you going to buy?