Every now and then we should stop and give credit to the unsung innovations that are woven into the fabric of our daily lives. Take the bicycle, for example: originating in the 19th century, the humble two-wheeler has grown into an institution, filled with societal, economic and even political meaning in addition to its functional beauty.
The subsequent decades have seen the bike continue its evolution, garnering acclaim for its health benefits, poverty alleviation, female empowerment and sustainability traits. The latest in this long list of positive advancement is the electric bike, or e-bike.
Equipped with an electric motor offering assisted pedalling power, the vehicle has seen a surge of interest spurred by less physically able cyclists, along with parents simply seeking a sustainable mode of transport. The industry is making bank, too. The e-bike market was valued at 14.8 billion US dollars in 2018 with no sign of slowing down.
In the not-so-distant future, Finnish company Revonte could very well be pedalling ahead of the electrified pack. Revonte’s solution is based on a software-first approach that offers unprecedented options for e-bike manufacturers and end-users alike.
It all started with a gap in the market.
Status quo no mo’
Currently, the big companies producing motors for e-bikes are in a dominant position relative to the bike manufacturers, even though they’re strictly speaking supplying intermediate products.
“They’re often able to dictate a lot of the agreements, which some bike manufacturers have grown resentful of,” says Revonte co-founder Otto Chrons. “The main idea was to develop a modular platform that could be configured with software according to customer needs.”
Through configurability, Revonte sells a single system for which manufacturers develop features according to demand – a platform. Such customisation means the power is handed back to e-bike manufactures.
“People go to the shop and say I want this or that drive system and the bike often becomes of secondary importance or even irrelevant,” says Chrons. “What we are selling to the manufacturers is the freedom to make an e-bike of their choosing.”
Another focus for the company has been wear on the gear system, which is the most common reason for maintenance.
“Electric bikes are driven more, even in bad weather, and because people may not clean their bikes properly the gears experience considerable strain,” says Chrons.
Revonte began developing the idea of a stepless automatic transmission system that is located inside the motor, rather than outside. What emerged was an integrated solution that may just be the first serious effort to pack it all into one system.
“18 months in and our ideas are still valid. In fact, we’re starting to hear similar thoughts elsewhere, for example, related to the automated gear system.”
A soft touch
Underlying the above insights is a way of thinking that is based on user experience. It also means upending the traditional hardware-oriented industry and championing a softer approach.
“For us all the cool things are in the software.”
As a 20-year veteran entrepreneur from the software scene, Chrons has a pretty good idea of what disruption looks like. “An analogy you could think of is Nokia, which was a hardware company. Then along came Apple, a software company that changed the whole market.”
With software, the manufacturer can configure the drive unit to deliver the torque of a cargo bike, the spontaneity of a mountain bike or the smooth, wind-in-the-hair, experience of a city commuter. The different modes open up all kinds of new revenue streams for manufacturers but also simplify the retail side of things.
“Currently manufacturers may need four or five different drive systems in their storage. When you can configure the single drive unit according to customer needs via software, you don’t need to worry about the stock and you can deliver a customised experience for the end-user,” Chrons outlines.
The industry derailleur
The startup has strived for openness from the get-go with open APIs. The system’s architecture lets third-party developers access and build on the existing components, unleashing the unlimited imagination of solution providers.
E-bike manufacturers currently don’t have a direct link to their end-users and hence have very little insight as to how, by whom and where their products are used. The long-term disruptive potential in Revonte’s solution is the automated gathering of data through the drive system.
“In the long term, data will be the key enabler to understand and connect with the end-user to offer an even better experience. Somewhere down the road we have envisioned an e-commerce service in our app, which can personalise the product catalogue and updates for your e-bike.”
Revonte is currently working with early-adopter clients and co-developing their latest prototypes in order to begin limited production in spring 2020 and to reach full capacity by 2021.
“Our long-term plan is to be a market leader in the business. A different thing is how you measure it; I don’t think we’re aiming for the biggest volumes or turnover, but rather a feel or a sense of leadership.”
The sights are set on the Central European and US markets, where demand for ecological transportation is heating up.
“It’s a great motivator for us in a what-have-I-done-in-my-life kind of way. It’s enjoyable to work on such a solution at this ripe old age,” concludes the 47-year-old Chrons.