Richard Thorpe's Gocycle was a long time in development, but the former McLaren engineer now hopes to sell his first 50,000 units
The tale of how Richard Thorpe brought Gocycle, a lightweight electric bicycle, to market is both inspiring and sobering. The former senior design engineer at McLaren Cars faced numerous rejections from manufacturers and financiers before he finally made his product available for sale. The good news is that Thorpe’s Karbon Kinetics has gone “from nothing to £1m revenue in the first year”. The more depressing news is that Thorpe struggled for eight years to get backing for his idea. The only reason Gocycle is in the shops, he says, is because the product proved resilient. “What’s driven this high-tech company with breakthrough technology forward is the reaction to the product,” says Thorpe.
Describing himself as an enthusiast of vehicles of all kinds, Thorpe was initially interested in designing a luxury lifestyle product. “We were going to make about 100 very cool, high-end bicycles handmade in the UK in carbon fibre that would sell for around £3,000,” he recalls. But after the reaction to the prototypes was so positive, Thorpe decided to take his electric two-wheeler mainstream. “We qualified for a DTI development grant and researched alternatives to carbon fibre, which ended up being magnesium. We made a breakthrough because we could produce a product that was light and looked the same but could be manufactured at a fraction of the cost”.
That was the start of a protracted and often frustrating journey. Thorpe travelled around the world for 18 months “cold calling” bicycle companies in an attempt to persuade them to manufacture the Gocycle. After being “universally rejected”, he changed tack to look for funding for a slightly different design. “I went through a year of rejection again from banks through to boutique fundraisers,” he says. But in January 2006, he finally won the first round of funding. He describes the process as “like trying to catch 10 chickens in a pen”.
Partnering with a bicycle manufacturer called Ideal Bike, more delays in Europe—“after 13 months there was no wheel”—took him to Taiwan. “I spent five weeks on the production line in Taiwan and in November 2007 we had produced 200 of the world’s first injection-moulded magnesium bicycles. We won first place for best innovation at the Taipei International Cycle show in March 2008”.
Thorpe failed to agree a workable contract with Ideal Bikes. Karbon Kinetics now develops and manufactures the bicycle in the UK. Gocycle was launched in Europe in April 2009.
Thorpe sees a bright future for electric vehicles, and reckons his venture is perfectly positioned for an “upswing” in urban, electric products. Defending claims that the Gocycle might breed a nation of lazy oafs who only have to touch a button to get an electric power boost, Thorpe says users will still exercise. “The point is that with an electric motor you get from A to B quicker. People pedal and will be as fit as they want to be. It will transform how far you go, or how quickly you get there. Our product is performance-oriented—we’re about speed and fun. Having an electric motor changes the usage occasions for the product—there are fewer barriers”.
Thorpe’s ambition for Gocycle is to sell 30-50,000 units a year within three- to five years, in Europe and the US. “The current selling price is around £1,500 and we have other models that we’ll introduce. At that point, whether we continue and take it globally or exit as a management team is to be determined”.