How Vanhawks is Shaking Up a Stagnant Market

Canada’s Most Innovative Companies 2015: Toronto company is building a durable smart bike

 
Written by Murad Hemmadi

A car is creeping up in your blind spot. You’re zipping along on your bicycle, with no way to hear anything over the noise of the city. Fortunately, your handlebars start vibrating to let you know there’s a problem. That’s the promise of the Valour, a smart bicycle manufactured by Toronto startup Vanhawks that is set to hit Canadian streets this spring.

Vanhawks is the latest in a long line of successful Canadian cycling companies, including the likes of international manufacturer Dorel Industries, luxury line Cervélo and bike sharing service staple Cycle Devinci. The company completed a $1.6 million funding round in March, with investors including Canadian Olympic triathelete Simon Whitfield’s Relentless Pursuit Ventures.

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Most attempts to apply technology to bikes involve retrofitted accessories. “That’s a really broken user experience,” says Vanhawks co-founder and CEO Sohaib Zahid. “It looks like a bike coming out of Frankenstein’s lab.”

So the company builds its tech right into the Valour’s carbon-fibre frame, for a product that users can simply lift out of the box and be ready to ride. In addition to alerting you to the presence of cars, the bike also employes LED lights synced with a mobile phone to provide directions, and its companion app will devise quicker, smoother routes using road and traffic data gathered from other Valour riders.

Vanhawks’ ambition for a new kind of bicycle comes not a moment too soon, says Zahid. “The bike industry is a stagnant market,” he says. “[Companies] put metal and rubber together, and €˜innovation’ is making the bike light or the gears different.”

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But all that technology comes at a price: the Valour starts at $1,249 for the base model, a steep number for urban commuters who can find perfectly serviceable bangers for $100 on Craiglist. Zahid maintains that the sophistication and quality of the materials that the Valour uses make it worth the sticker. Plus, Vanhawks isn’t targeting the average commuter.  “We’re not going to make a general product for the general market—target a bigger mass, make a Walmart-level product and throw it out there,” he says. “We’re really targetting early-adopters, but also somebody who has never ridden a bike in their life.”

Vanhawks is betting that the safety and connectivity offered by the Valour will draw in people who have hitherto considered bicycles too dangerous or basic for everyday commuting. Zahid identifies young people as a key demographic that has largely been reticent to get on the saddle, since cycles to this point have not featured the same social connectivity options that are a staple of every other aspect of their lives. “The millennial generation that is living in the urban centres wants a bike that is safer, smarter, and sexier,” he says.

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Zahid hopes to add millennials and other reluctant riders to the 100 million units he says represents the total number of bikes sold each year. But he acknowledges that Vanhawks cannot sell all those bikes. While the company is currently focusing on delivering the first Valours to customers, the long-term plan includes partnering with other bike manufacturers to integrate Vanhawks software into their models. “We are building a platform, not just one bike,” says Zahid.

Zahid likens the Valour to Google’s Android-running Nexus phone: a showcase for the software platform that demonstrates what users want to third-party manufacturers. “We envision [the software] not just as part of Vanhawks’ bikes but every bike which rolls off the assembly line,” he says.

This article is from the April 2015 issue of Canadian BusinessSubscribe now!

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