For many businesses starting out, the research and development (R&D) phase can be the most expensive and time-consuming. Tue Beijer and Jonas Nyvang, co-founders of Stockholm-based electric scooter business STILRIDE, went into this phase knowing that it was a big step – and that they'd need a ton of help to take it, as they weren't the usual demographic for small business owners.
‘We started when we were both middle-aged men with lots of children,’ says Jonas, a former business development director at US media network Starcom. ‘We had mortgages, kids' tuition and all these fixed costs. So, taking the lead to start our own ventures was a huge leap of faith.’ However, they got lucky, getting research funding for £300,000. ‘That was a really good start for us because then we had the freedom to develop without the stress of chasing money from the start,’ says Jonas.
When the idea for STILRIDE was born, Tue was working as an industrial designer and Jonas was serving as the marketing director for fashion brand Björn Borg. Tue is a fan of Vespas – Jonas says he's been drawing scooters since they met when he was 19 years old. One day at a dinner, Tue sketched a new version of the scooter, which was folded from a single totally flat sheet, and the pair realized that it might be possible to create it. As Tue had previously worked with the Swedish steel industry, he went to some experts with a paper model of the scooter.
‘We got a very positive response that they'd help us with the application to the Research Council and we worked on that part-time for a couple of months,’ says Jonas. They visited a steel mill in the middle of Sweden to find out more about steel and gathered a group of companies that could help them realize the product. It was with all that support that they got funding.
They needed it, too. Their vision, for a scooter made from a single sheet of cut and folded stainless steel, was complex. They wanted to work with a very lean process in development and manufacturing, using recycled steel, reducing all of their emissions and using fewer tools and logistics. They planned to produce as locally as possible, sending the blueprint for the scooter to a local metal workshop to have the chassis made. With funding secured, R&D began and continued for three more years. Tue and Jonas collaborated with a metal workshop in Stockholm, an engineering firm that worked on the scientific details and a steel company.
Making the prototype
Step one was to make the chassis, for which they planned to use fewer parts than a traditional chassis requires. To do that, they stripped a market-leader scooter, which meant they wouldn't have to develop their own engine and drive train (the components that deliver power to the wheels). ‘To get to the first prototype, we bought two new scooters: one light motorcycle and one moped version,’ says Jonas. ‘We stripped those, took the drive train, took the battery and worked around that.’ In doing so, they gained a lot of time, because they didn't have to source those parts. In a little more than a year, they had a functional prototype to demonstrate to people, investors and stakeholders.
However, demonstrating that the STILRIDE prototype worked wouldn't be enough – the next phase in R&D was to make it road legal, which you can't do with a reverse-engineered scooter. For that, they had to make it from scratch, which is what they're doing now.
Tue and Jonas did life-cycle analysis with industry associations to get a third-party opinion on whether the scooter was as sustainable and had as little impact as they wanted it to. Comparing it to a competitor, NIU, they found that STILRIDE's chassis is made of fewer than 10 parts to NIU's 140. That means less impact, as every part made equals more emissions. STILRIDE's chassis also weighs 10 kilos to NIU's 40. By showing this, they raised the money for production.
In January 2021, STILRIDE raised the money to start developing the technology and the machines that could curve and fold their scooters. ‘The first scooter was more a showcase, a Trojan horse for the technology and a way for us to get across that this product has market fit,’ says Jonas. ‘If you're an entrepreneur, you have to get that feedback early.’ The pair posted photos during the R&D phase on their social channels, which got picked up by motorcycle blogs and design outlets worldwide and, in turn, made it much easier to raise money, a necessity in R&D. They've made two prototypes so far. But it's their third, the pre-series, that's the one to look out for – it's set to be road legal in Europe and the UK.
Once you've got a plan and some cash, the main obstacle for many business owners during R&D, says Jonas, is that you're not the top priority for suppliers, because you don't have any volume. ‘It's hard to find the right suppliers at this stage, because the big ones aren't that flexible,’ says Jonas. While the pair work with Stockholm-based brake-system company ISR, which makes custom brakes for ARCH, a motorcycle brand founded by actor Keanu Reeves, Jonas says they have to remain open-minded about deadlines. ‘When you're working with smaller companies, they're flexible but not as professional as the big ones.’ That could make things tough with funding, but it's worth doing.
Additionally, says Jonas, you need to realize how much help you need during R&D – and how much you need to know. ‘I made a mistake of not having the right regulatory knowledge to prove stuff,’ he says. ‘You have to know what regulations apply and what you need to develop to comply with those. There's a lot of paperwork. I didn't count on that.’
Another mistake was not realizing that they needed their own software to run the scooter and ensure that the driving control unit, the engine, the battery and the other parts worked well together. You can't do anything alone, and Jonas remains grateful to his co-founder. ‘Find someone you can share the load with who has a different skill set [from] yourself and have fun. If it was just me, I wouldn't have fun doing this.’
That extends beyond your whole team, too, says Jonas, particularly when you're still testing things out: ‘You need a great team. If you're a visionary, you need someone who takes care of the administrative works, otherwise, you're gonna die.’