In our [The Spinoff] Q&A series, The Lightbulb, we ask innovators and entrepreneurs to tell us about how they turned their ideas into reality. This week we talk to Guy Howard-Willis, formerly of Torpedo7 and now founder of Manta5, makers of the world’s first hydrofoil e-bike.
First of all, give us your elevator pitch for Manta5.
We’ve made the world’s first hydrofoil e-bike that replicates the cycling experience on water. Cycling on water is something that’s never been done before, and it’s a really extraordinary sensation. It’s not like kayaking, it’s not like windsurfing. There’s quietness with just the water lapping.
If you can swim, if you can ride a bike, then you can ride this.
How did the idea for a water bike come about? What was your lightbulb moment?
I’m a keen cyclist. I’ve cycled all my life and I really enjoy it. But I also really enjoy swimming, so cycling on water was something I always thought about. I always wondered why it hadn’t been done [before], and the more I looked into it, [the more I thought] there must be a way using foil instead of wheels, which was started to be used more in watercraft.
So I started drawing pictures and I thought about it for ages. I’d go to sleep thinking about it. I’d wake up in the morning thinking about it. But it wasn’t until I went to a business conference in Hamilton and the speaker, who was quite a creative chap, said: How often do you get an idea or dream, you think about it long enough, and then someone brings it out and you tell all your family and friends, ‘you know, I thought of that! I thought of that three years ago!’
That really got me thinking about how… you can carry around this dream for ages and [spend the rest of your life thinking], ‘I wonder how that would’ve worked’. That was enough to motivate me. I wanted to find out, and I wanted to find out now.
Once you decided to go forward with your idea, what did you do?
Once I decided to do this, I went looking for someone to help me. I’m an ideas person, an entrepreneur, so I’m less involved in the engineering side of things, and I knew required a very good [bike] designer.
One day I came across a designer [co-founder Roland Alonzo] and I asked if he could help me. I told him I wanted to cycle on water and he said he couldn’t do it. I asked if he could design something and he said: ‘Sure, I can design it. But this isn’t for me.’ I asked him why and he said it was because he couldn’t swim! But he got over it.
That was back in 2011. What happened in those first few years of development?
The first two years of this was the hardest part. Only my wife, my designer, and his wife knew. We kept it a secret for two years. This was towards the end of my time at Torpedo7, so every now and again, I’d slip out to Tauranga and make small bits of progress.
During that time, we had to prove the bike could foil (ie: glide on top of the surface of the water). We’d go to an open-air swimming pool in Tauranga to test it out. We’d go late at night because we didn’t want anyone seeing us. It was freezing cold.
Once we could prove the bike could foil, we tried different propellers to find out which one could propel you the best. Initially, we managed to do 15km/h which great. But when we applied for a government grant from Callaghan, that changed everything because [we were able to get] an engineer who used computer software to help us design the right foil and the right propeller.
For example, the propeller used to be at the back of the bike so that it pushed you along the water. But we realised that if we turned the propeller around so it pulled you instead, the bike moved faster. That and the new foil took us from 15km/hr to 22km/hr.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you so far?
The hardest thing for us was figuring out what happens when you fall off [into the water]. How are you going to get back to shore? There had to be a way that you could get back on the bike easily, start pedalling, get to the surface and carry on.
Figuring that out took us ages, but we did it. Now, with about 15 hard pedal strokes, you can climb out the water and carry on riding. There’s a technique to it, but it’s not that hard.
What’s the appeal of cycling on water?
Cycling on the road is dangerous. If you come off the bike it hurts, and quite often accidents on the road occur [from vehicles] swooping past you, so safety’s a real concern. But when you’re riding on the water and you fall off, you’re just going to get wet instead.
There’s also a big fitness aspect to it as well. If you’re riding a bike on the road, 80% of the time you’re pedalling and 20% of the time you’re freewheeling. But you can’t do that on water. You have to be pedalling all the time.
Initially, the bike was just manual. But once we added an e-bike motor, we opened it up to a much wider range of people. We’ve had people in their sixties ride it and we’ve had a 12-year-old ride it. We’ve had people who are 50kg ride it and people who are 115kg ride it. It might take two or three attempts to get the hang of it, but it doesn’t take long.
How many bikes have you sold so far?
To date, we’ve had 200 people pay the deposit and more than 33,000 say they want one. Most of these deposits are from the US which we see as our biggest market.
All the design and development is done in New Zealand, but what about assembly and manufacturing?
Initially, we’ll assemble them here to get it right. But eventually, we’ll get it done in Taiwan.
I’d love to make the whole bike here, but in terms of manufacturing the parts, it’s cheaper to get them done overseas. We chose Taiwan because it’s the centre of the world for delivery. New Zealand’s not. We’re a long way from everywhere.
Finally, what can we expect for the rest of 2019?
Our first priority is production as the first bikes get shipped out in the next four months. The second is getting more orders. We’ve got 200 already so our next step is to put a bit more work into marketing in the US and get it up to about 1,500 orders. We’re going to focus on California and Florida as opposed to the whole of America. But once we start, I think we can get up to 10,000 bikes a year, which isn’t actually a lot for America.
After that, I think we’d have to look at how we’re going to fund this. We’ve funded this ourselves up until now, and I think it’s getting to the point where it’s going to be a big business. It’s exciting.