New startup tries to reinvent cycling in America

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In the latest Startup news, MIT attempts to reinvent cycling in America. On the misery scale, commuting by car to and from work can rank right up there with root canals and cable bills — only with a lot more cussing. Picture Los Angeles at rush hour and feel the road rage. Mitigating that daily grind is among the challenges undertaken by MIT’s SenseAble City Laboratory, where omni-disciplinary teams of brainiacs mastermind ways to create smarter urban environments. “Forty percent of our projects were around transportation,” said Assaf Biderman, a former associate director at the lab whose expertise lies in physics and design.

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In 2009 he and two colleagues invented an ingenious contraption called the Copenhagen Wheel, which essentially morphs an ordinary bicycle into a semi-autonomous robotic bike — and a hybrid alternative to the car. Centered around a conventional tire, rim and spokes, the wheel comprises a Frisbee-size bright red hub that houses a 350-watt motor, a 48-volt rechargeable lithium-ion battery, multiple sensors, Bluetooth wireless connectivity and an embedded control system activated by a smartphone mounted to the handlebars.

Cycling in America

Weighing just under 16 pounds, it replaces a standard 26- or 28-inch rear wheel of almost any bike (currently not 20-inch wheels) and is compatible with existing single-speed or 7- to 10-gear drive trains made by Shimano or SRAM. The motor kicks in as soon as the rider starts pedaling, propelling the bike up to 20 mph for an average range of 30 miles on a full battery charge.

Biderman left SenseAble City in 2012 to launch Superpedestrian, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based start-up (No. 7 on CNBC’s Upstart 25 list) whose mission is to transform urban mobility, starting with the Copenhagen Wheel. Over the next four years, the company tweaked the wheel inside and out, tested prototypes, raised millions in venture capital, established a supply chain and set up a local manufacturing facility. In late 2016, Superpedestrian began cranking out and shipping finished products, priced at $1,200, including hundreds that had been preordered as long as three years ago, when the Copenhagen Wheel’s introduction began generating some buzz.

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