Organic Transit, in new Durham headquarters, eyes growth

Apr. 16, 2014 @ 06:17 PM

Outside Organic Transit’s headquarters on West Corporation Street on a recent Friday morning, green and orange solar-and-pedal-powered trikes were parked in rows.

An employee was test-driving some of them, and at one point, a small orange trike could be seen in the distance climbing a hill toward the office.

Inside, employees were assembling new trikes and working on prototypes for new designs or improvements to the company’s existing commuter vehicle. Called the ELF, the vehicle has an electric motor and can also be pedal powered.

It’s been about five months since the Durham-based company moved into a new headquarters at 311 W. Corporation St., said CEO Rob Cotter.

The building previously housed a plumbing supply business. Cotter said they knocked down walls and put glass in the garage doors to let in light and installed energy efficient LED lights, among other improvements.
In the offices and showroom in the front, a window offers a glimpse into the assembly room where workers were working on new ELFs in various stages.

At about 7,500 square feet, the space is larger than Organic Transit’s former location on East Chapel Hill Street, Cotter said, and also has heating and air conditioning.

“We were really trying to move from start-up to (a) true manufacturing/assembly operation,” John Warasila, the founding principal and part-owner of Durham-based Alliance Architecture, which designed the building, said in an email.

Warasila is a part of a group that owns the building along with Alliance Architecture partner Vandana Dake. In their new headquarters, Dake said the building will help to enliven Corporation Street. Warasila, Dake and the others also were investors in Organic Transit.

Warasila said the company is making key new hires, including, for the first time, a sales team.

“We now have a very solid, well-designed vehicle in the ELF,” Warasila said. “(It’s) time to sell it and scale the company.”

Incorporated in 2012, Organic Transit started production of the ELF last year. The company has sold about 350 trikes in its first year of production, Cotter said. That includes about 10 early prototypes and about 50 ELFs produced for supporters of the company’s Kickstarter campaign, he said.

This year, Cotter wants to sell 1,200 ELFs, but he said the company will need resources to expand. They’re raising the price of the vehicles from $5,000 to $5,500, he said, and are looking to raise new capital from investors.

They will need to expand their manufacturing capabilities, Cotter said. They had planned to have trikes manufactured through a nonprofit bicycle-repair program in California that aims to help low-income and homeless people, he said, but encountered quality-control issues. That effort is in a holding pattern, he said, and they’re about to instead focus the relationship on maintenance.

They’re also continuing to work on the design of the ELF, Cotter said, and have made about 30 changes since the fall. They’re working on development of a commercial or truck vehicle known as the OX.

To their team, they’ve added a former Ford Motor Co. employee. Apoorv Agarwal, now general manager at Organic Transit, said he came to the area for personal reasons, meant to spend about an hour visiting Organic Transit, and ended up spending six.

He said what had attracted him to Ford was that the company was making cars affordable, and he said there’s a new challenge in the 21st century: sustainability. At Ford, his work involved electric and hybrid vehicle development.

Agarwal said he believes Organic Transit needs to scale its operations, selling thousands of vehicles, and will need to work on lean ways of manufacturing and finding like-minded business partners.