The wheel. Generally thought to have been born around 3,500 BC, the first known use of two of them for gliding around the terra firma dates back to the early 1800s. But for centuries, the very concept of what was possible with the design remained virtually stagnant, with so few figuring out a way to improve upon the original that the notion of doing so (ie: “reinventing the wheel”) has become a punchline.
Enter Michael Burtov, founder and CEO of the Cambridge-based GeoOrbital project, who just over a year ago was on the receiving end of inspiration’s breath and a moment of engineering clarity (which is interesting considering he has no training in the field) after screening a classic Disney movie involving a pre-Big Lebowski Jeff Bridges.
“I was watching the movie Tron and I realized that all that space inside the ‘orbital’ wheel was wasted,” he says, referring to the particular version of motorcycle wheel the film’s “light cycles” zoomed around on. “So I thought why not put all sorts of components inside that empty space [and create a] wheel that doesn’t spin around a hub, but orbits around a central mass.” The problem was Burtov hailed from a business background, and bringing this concept to light would require funding, not to mention actual engineers.
The latter would come after attending the weekly Venture Cafe networking event in Cambridge last September. Burtov was introduced to Gideon Coltof, now GeoOrbital VP of product, a senior engineer with experience in robotics, renewable power, and program and product design and management, as well as product development for the likes of Roomba overlords iRobot, and the Department of Defense. Dakota Decker soon followed, coming on board as chief technology officer. Decker, a wunderkind in his own right (he graduated high school at 14), brought experience from working with the US Air Force and holding project leadership roles with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which is attempting to revolutionize space exploration.
Now a team, the trio began working on the first prototype in early October, with the actual mechanical work being done at Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville, and a second version of the prototype was developed around February of this year. The third was just assembled and tested about a month ago, and the group is now entering pre-production for a prototype that has all the features of the existing models in addition to the improvements and tweaks made along the way. GeoOrbital’s production model is on track to be available for sale to the public this summer, but still, what is it exactly?
“It’s an electric wheel that will let you turn any bike into an e-bike in about five minutes,” says Coltof. “It’s got a battery and motor control, and everything is built into the wheel itself. It’s pretty unique. The only parts that spin are the rim and the tire. The rest of guts remain static.”
After a one-time install of things like a throttle to clamp onto handlebars (the wheel reaches 25mph on flat surfaces, which can increase with minimal manual pedaling), riders will be able to take off their existing front wheel, secure the GeoOrbital on, and away you go. To return the bike to manual, you just disconnect the GeoOrbital and put the standard wheel back on. That’s it.
The company will launch with a 700c size wheel, the most popular size for bikes built these days, and they will have a 26-inch wheel down the line. But the rim and tire and tubes are set to standard sizes, and are interchangeable. And sure, e-bikes themselves have been around for several years. But until now the options have been a pricey pre-fab model costing several thousand dollars, or a cheaper retrofitting kit that will test just how much you know your way around a set of tools and low-level electrical engineering. The GeoOrbital is something of a disruptor then as a modifier of the standard bike, and as they put it, a perfect utilitarian tool for urban commuter who no longer must become drenched in sweat during the installation process, or even it’s use.
“I ride our GeoOrbital prototypes almost every day as part of my commute, and unlike when I’m on a regular bike, I am not in desperate need of a shower when I get to work,” says Burtov. “When I want to bike for fun or exercise, I take the front wheel off, put my regular wheel back on, and in 30 seconds I get back my 100-percent manual bike.” Adds Coltof: “I’m a bicycle commuter myself, [and] the problem for most urban bike commuters is you get to where you’re going, and then you’re damp or sweating. The cool thing about our wheel is it gets you to where you want to go, ‘no sweat.’ You can hop on, and off you go. It really enables city commuters to maximize the advantages of a bike [in a city].”
Which isn’t to say they are the first local outfit to take a stab at redesigning the wheel. The Copenhagen Wheel Project out of the MIT SENSEable Lab has been underway for some time, but after several years and several millions of dollars in research and testing, at present the company is still in pre-order phase and has yet to launch in full to the public. GeoOrbital’s production model is on track to be available for sale to the public this summer.
At the moment, the company is fully operating off angel investment funding, with planned price points hovering around $500 for a wheel (making it one of the least expensive, if not the least expensive e-bike wheel on the market), which could have a massive impact for those that eschew public trans for the cycle life. And for anyone who has ever suffered at the hands of the Green Line, the idea of biking through town is becoming more and more appealing (and not sweating your ass off is always appealing). Take for instance the fact that the average commute on the MBTA in the Hub is around 35-45 minutes, whereas commuting the same general distance is cut in half on a bike. Add the fact that you can get there even quicker with a speedy transition to a ‘no sweat’ e-bike, and this new project could change how you look at everything from a trip to the grocery store to hauling your book bag and laptop to school or work. As Coltof puts it, the GeoOrbital “kind of flattens the world for you.”
“Biking is a lifestyle choice for many but it is also an extremely practical and cost-effective form of transportation,” says Burtov. “We need to get more people into biking—not just the cool and fit people, but all people. That’s the key to needed and lasting change. I see the GeoOrbital wheel not only as a way to get more people into biking, but also as a way to make practical biking the norm, rather than the exception.”
GEOORBITAL WHEEL. AVAILABLE SUMMER 2015. FOR MORE INFORMATION VISIT GEOO.COM