Local start-up developing solar-powered bike

Dec. 16, 2012 @ 02:32 PM


The Durham-based start-up company Organic Transit is looking to move from prototype into production mode of its three-wheeled, solar- and-pedal-powered hybrid bicycles.

The company has launched a campaign on the website Kickstarter to raise $100,000. The funding is meant to pay for the materials and manpower for the first 100 bicycles of its consumer vehicle model, known as the Elf.

Three vehicle prototypes already have been built. Two of them were standing Thursday in the front windows of the business’ offices and workshop in downtown Durham at 309 E. Chapel Hill St.

The space previously housed Bargain Furniture, but the lettering above the door now bears Organic Transit’s name.

Inside, workers were busy Thursday afternoon working on additional early-stage vehicles. Pete Warasila, one of the company’s angel investors, said the company is moving into building production-stage prototypes, with the goal of perfecting and standardizing the design.

Warasila said the bodies of the original prototypes were made with fiberglass, by hand. They’re now having the Warsaw-based contract plastics manufacturer Accu-Form Polymers vacuum-form the plastic body shells. Many components of the vehicles are bike parts purchased off the shelf.

They’re buying the 60-watt solar panels for the vehicles from multiple manufacturers, said Rob Cotter, CEO and founder of Organic Transit.

Cotter said he headed up the design of the electrical system of the vehicle – which has a solar panel that re-charge a battery to power a motor, which powers the bike when the user doesn’t want to pedal – but they’re now “pulling in” a couple of local electrical engineers to work on the system as well.

Their goal is to create affordable vehicles that can be mass-produced, Warasila said. They want to create an assembly process that can be replicated.

“Our goal is to have assembly points in multiple geographies,” Cotter said. “Global distribution – where they’re assembled in downtown locations everywhere. People can see them coming together like touring a brewery.”

After perfecting the vehicle design, they plan to build a limited number of beta-stage vehicles for local buyers, Warasila said. They plan to work with the vehicle owners to resolve any kinks, he said.

And by March, he said, they hope to deliver the first 25 Elfs made, and to be on the path to deliver 25 more by April, another 25 in May and another 25 in June.

As of Thursday evening with 30 days left in their online fundraising campaign, they had pledges for $92,632 of their $100,000 goal. Of the 270 backers, 18 each pledged $4,000 to be among the first 25 to receive Elf vehicles.

One backer made pledges for a vehicle from the second batch, Elf models No. 26 through 50, which are estimated for delivery in April.

There were no backers yet for the third batch, but one backer pledged to buy a vehicle in the fourth batch open for international buyers.

“We have a much greater demand than we’re actually able to fulfill at the moment,” Cotter said. “And that’s all based online.”

Warasila said the investors behind the company believe there’s a market for the product. He was one of the initial investors along other members of his family.

“I want to have one – it’s awesome,” he said, adding that while he enjoys working at the company, but also believes start-ups are not for everyone.

Pete Warasila’s brother, John Warasila, is a partner in the Durham-based architecture firm Alliance Architecture. His partner at the firm, Vandana Dake, is also an investor in Organic Transit.

Organic Transit is housed in a building owned by Empire Alliance LLC, a venture in which John Warasila is a partner. While the start-up company isn’t making revenue yet, they’re “making it work,” John Warasila said in an email.

“We are, and have been, patient investors,” he said, adding that the project has involved a lot of sweat equity and self-funding. “It’s a great concept that we see huge potential in that has many applications. People just love it.”

Brett Alexander, an Organic Transit employee who handles sourcing for the company along with other tasks, said one question the company’s staff gets when people walk through the door is “is this real?”

“People get excited, they get excited about what it is,” he said.

Alexander said they’ve made a lot of progress even in the last two weeks, and sees that “this thing is happening, it’s real,” he said.

“Where we were, until where we are now, it’s almost a miracle,” he said.