July 6, 2014

Assaf Biderman – Transforming Urban Transportation & Mobility

How do you go about innovating one of the oldest forms of transportation?  One that is still commonly used, yet it is still very limited based on our own strength and power.  What if this new invention could radically transform transportation in urban areas and make you feel almost “super human?” 

Get familiar with Assaf Biderman, the Founder & CEO of Superpedestrian, the company behind The Copenhagen Wheel. 

Biderman was born and raised in Israel by his father, a national theater actor, and his mother, who ran a non-profit that conducted research to demonstrate how critical it was for a child to get the right type of education during their early childhood.

This upbringing led Biderman to attend a unique elementary school which was focused on nature and stimulating creativity.  They did a lot of hiking and the school promoted ways to think differently.  There was less structure and no formal testing.  It wasn’t until junior high, when he started attending schools with more of a “normal” structure.  

Like most young Israeli men, Biderman joined the military after high school, so it wasn’t until the age of 24 when he was able to pursue his undergraduate studies at MIT.  He entered MIT unsure of what he wanted to study and he liked the fact that he could explore lots of different areas of interest at MIT like physics, design, architecture, etc. 

While at MIT, Biderman worked under Hiroshi Ishii in the MIT Media Lab. As part of the Tangible Media Group, they created a product called Sandscape which makes it possible to design and better understand landscapes through computational simulations.  This product was a new user interface for landscape designers where it animates the model in real time.  The technology was patented and was written about in academic journals. 

In 2004, Biderman met Carlo Ratti, who also worked with Hiroshi Ishii at the MIT Media Lab.  The two of them had the opportunity to build a new lab at MIT called the SENSEable City Lab.  They saw a vision of the future in terms of computers leaving the desktop and helping to digitize cities (now known as Smart Cities and The Internet of Things).  Their lab worked on major projects aimed at addressing the most pressing challenges of urbanization, by taking advantage of the massive deployment of digital technologies in the physical world. 

The SENSAable City Lab has worked with major cities like Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, Dallas, Copenhagen, New York, Singapore, and many others.  They took on important projects like improving the quality of water in homes, developing and deploying digital sensors to analyze the flow of trash and where it goes, or setting up an urban operating system in order to enable broader based access for civic participation in cities.   These projects were funded by large multinational corporations like Volkswagen, Coca Cola, AT&T, Accenture, General Electric, etc. 

Since a lot of people from industry have an interest in helping to build “Smart Cities”, the SENSEable City Lab grew from two people to now having the largest research budget at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, which is the largest planning department worldwide.  The lab at any point in time could have over 40 postdocs and has carried out over seventy projects. 

Several of these projects from the SENSEable City Lab took a life of their own, most notably, The Copenhagen Wheel.

The Copenhagen Wheel 

In collaboration with the city of Copenhagen, Biderman and his team developed a revolutionary wheel that would transform urban mobility.  The wheel would transform your bicycle into a hybrid e-bike that allows you to capture the energy created while cycling and store it for when you need it the most. 

Assaf Biderman with The Copenhagen Wheel - photo by Bijan Sabet.

As you’ll see in the video below, the wheel can integrate seamlessly with almost any bike. All the technology (sensors, motor, batteries, an embedded control system, wireless connectivity, etc.) is contained inside the Copenhagen Wheel, packed into a stylish red hub.  

The wheel tracks relevant information, such as slope, cadence, torque, etc.  The wheel learns how you pedal and integrates seamlessly with your motion without the need for pressing any buttons or throttles. For example, as you approach a hill, the motorized wheel kicks in giving you an extra push and makes the hill seemingly vanished, and your ride less physically demanding. Their app also allows you to track your trip and health benefits like mileage & calories burned and share the information socially. 

The Copenhagen Wheel was unveiled on December 15, 2009 at a United Nations’ Climate Conference with lots of accolades.  Immediately the project gained lots of attention and was written about in many places.  The Copenhagen Wheel was even featured as a centerpiece on a TV show on Showtime called Weeds. 

All this attention drew interest from over 25,000 people in the public wondering – “how do I buy one?”  Thus, it just made sense to commercialize this technology and spin it out from the lab.  After negotiating an exclusive license agreement with MIT, Biderman officially launched Superpedestrian in January of 2013.  They operated in stealth mode for ten months, as they initially built out the team, until they formally announced the company’s $2.1M round of funding last October, which was led by Spark Capital with participation from David Karp (founder of Tumblr). 

Superpedestrian started a pre-order campaign in December and they have already received thousands of orders. The wheel will be manufactured locally in the New England area.  Biderman was adamant about manufacturing The Copenhagen Wheel with local partners, so they could keep close tabs on the quality of the manufacturing process.  

Biderman was also thankful that he decided to keep the company in the Boston area, as this region has a phenomenal talent pool in terms of people with experience in robotics, software, hardware, electrical & mechanical engineering.  The team is now 18 people and they will are continuing to hire. 

If you would like to be among those to enjoy this revolutionary technology and change your bike riding experience, the pre-order campaign is still live.  The cost is $799, which I think is a small price to pay for making your transformation into a futuristic “Superpedestrian” complete!

Josh Boyle is Director of Community & Marketing, VentureFizz.  You can follow him on Twitter: @jb_sid.