By Mark Peterman, Founder, Air Fom
The Business of Mobility is a new Urban Mobility Company series highlighting some of the most successful new businesses in the mobility sector. Featuring a closer look at the way in which companies stand out, CEOs, Directors and other c-level executives elaborate on what it takes to turn a great idea into a great company.
Cycling technology has experienced an astounding level of innovation over the years. Some bikes have transformed into high-tech, luxury items, costing over $15,000. They have electronic shifting, they have 24 speeds, they weigh less than 7 kilos, but yet, they still suffer from the same issue that cyclists have been experiencing since the days of penny-farthings: flat tires.
After 130 years, there has yet to be a solution which completely eliminates a cyclist’s risk of blowing out a tire and is, what I believe to be, an enormous gap in the market. I live and work in Taichung, Taiwan, which is considered to be the global center for cycling and footwear technology. When I saw the amazing new particle foam technology being used to develop the latest running shoes, the wheels in my head started turning (pun intended). Typically, these two industries never come together, but I saw a way to “cross breed” the technology used in the lightest and fastest running shoes into a solution that eliminates flat tires. These latest advancements in materials development combined with a deep knowledge of the cycling industry came together to create the Air Fom concept. By creating a team of experts that brought decades of experience in both industries, Air Fom was able to invent and patent a solution for flat tires that truly solves the issues of marketplace acceptance.
A Very Bumpy Ride to Success
Of course, coming up with a good idea is one thing, but actually making it happen is a totally different and challenging process. Air Fom is an entirely new innovation that uses new materials. Any time something is invented that is an entirely new class of product with no reference in the market, no benchmarks in testing protocols, no base of established manufacturing resources, and no ability to gauge consumer reactions, the road to a successful launch is a minefield. Design, manufacture, testing and quality control presented many hurdles in the process of producing a market-ready product. I very quickly discovered that collaboration is key. Working with technical specialists, talented moulding vendors, and visionary material providers is what ultimately allowed Air Fom to become a reality.
This is not to say that we have not experienced serious setbacks in our quest for the best possible product. Our expectations in physical dimensions, material performance, consistent and repeatable parts manufacture, and design modelling were all very expensive lessons in what can and cannot be done in the world of particle foam moulding. We had to keep a firm eye on the required product attributes to drive our company’s focus and execution, and to make sure that in the end we had a final result that actually worked. Constant product performance testing – in the lab and in the field – enabled us to ensure that our vendors were supplying components to our specifications. However, the messy process of trial and error along with strict data tracking drove a large part of our learning. We discovered a great deal while we developed, and while this is invaluable, it can also be immensely frustrating. The curse of hindsight often tortured us as we moved forward in what we discovered and how we brought the product into being.
The Pros and Cons of Being a Disruptor
Air Fom is a fundamental disruption in the world of cycling. This is both positive and negative as we work to establish a global customer base. The concept, which is so new and so alien to many in the cycling world, requires a period of cognitive digestion in order to accept and test our product. Our ability to make and deliver a real solution to flat tires, using normal bicycle tires across many sizes, is fully unique in the cycling world and at first, it was challenging to win recognition. Fortunately this has been changing and, in fact, Air Fom was recognized in April of 2020 by the prestigious Edison Awards for a Gold medal in the Transportation/Personal Mobility category.
What I see as one of our “superpowers” is that we are a small, fast-moving group of passionate innovators from very different industries that firmly believes that our product will change the world for the better. This wide range of talents and perspectives has been crucial in giving our company the unique ability to think past the paradigms that rule the cycling industry and to act on them quickly. We also take environmental responsibility very seriously and sought to make sure that Air Fom would be “net-positive” in its carbon impact by using materials that are “closed loop” to replace the current material used for bicycle tubes, butyl rubber, which for all intents and purposes cannot be recycled.
Our Impact on the Shared Mobility Industry and the Elimination of Car Ownership
Air Fom is fully committed to helping personal mobility operators to become more profitable, more reliable, and more environmentally responsible. Our studies on TOC for shared operators show that a fleet of 10,000 bikes using Air Form can, over a 3-year period, save literally millions of dollars by eliminating the operational costs associated with replacing flat tires, eliminating pressure maintenance and seriously reducing damage caused by vandalism and intentional misuse. Air Fom seeks to deploy its technology globally by the year 2025 and to become a standard technology across shared platforms and fleets. Butyl tube waste by shared and lease operators is in the hundreds of metric tons every year: an issue our product will eliminate. By offering a real solution that is durable, high performance, cost effective and serviceable, Air Fom can help shared mobility operators to run more profitable businesses, thus, encouraging the spread and adoption of shared bike/lease bike systems to reduce and ultimately eliminate personally owned vehicles in cities around the globe. We also hope that through eliminating the threat of flat tires we can encourage more commuters to start cycling to work.
What Does the Future Hold?
Air Fom’s goal is to achieve 15% market penetration by 2024. With this growth we will expand from an approximately 1.5 million dollar brand to a 20 million dollar brand in three years. Using three channels of revenue generation – aftermarket, OEM and commercial – Air Fom can provide solutions across a range of products and applications. Market penetration depends on partners that have a vision of the future, understand the benefits of innovation in driving savings, and are strong leaders in catalyzing cultural change within their company. Real innovation can be polarizing. We feel strongly that by partnering with leading shared operators in highly visible markets such as Paris, Amsterdam, and London (plus many others), the Air Fom concept will be seen and experienced by thousands and thousands of riders. This validation will prove to the cycling world that if Air Fom can deliver on its product promise in one of the toughest use situations anywhere, that it certainly can work for any typical cyclist.
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