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Innovation Economy

A novel vehicle generates polarizing opinions

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By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2011

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On a frigid morning just before Christmas, Andrew Keefe slipped on a white motorcycle helmet and black jacket, and took a three-wheeled vehicle for a spin along Memorial Drive. Powered by a quartet of batteries, the all-electric “Uno’’ starts out as a kind of unicycle, balancing on two back wheels like a dog begging for a treat, then transforms into a more traditional-looking motorcycle, with a wheel on the front and two in the back, which move close enough together to look like a single, wide wheel.

As Keefe navigated through Cambridge, the Uno elicited stares and sparked questions every time it stopped. The bike, which resembles the mutant spawn of a Segway scooter and a Ducati racing motorcycle, has been on the cover of Popular Science as an “Invention of the Year.’’ The YouTube video of Keefe’s test ride has attracted more than 160,000 views.

The Uno is one of those futuristic, way-out-there products that provokes polarized reactions: Either you think it’s incredibly cool that someone has made a real-world “Transformer’’ and can’t wait to plunk down your $250 deposit, or you wonder why an electric bike designed for urban commuters needs a self-balancing unicycle mode.

The Cambridge company developing the Uno, BPG Inc., was founded by an MIT undergraduate, Benjamin Gulak. BPG reckons the bike will sell for between $5,000 and $7,500 once production spools up, with the first Unos reaching customers as soon as next year. But the company will need another $10 million to $20 million, on top of the $1.5 million it has already raised.

Gulak grew up in a Toronto suburb, obsessed with new forms of transportation. “I used to watch James Bond movies and ‘Star Wars,’ ’’ he says. “They always had these really cool vehicles, like cars that became submarines. But our cars and bikes have just stayed the same for 100 years.’’

At 17, Gulak built a rough, proof-of-concept Uno as a science fair project. Later, he won an opportunity to present the Uno on the Canadian reality TV show “Dragon’s Den,’’ where entrepreneurs seek funding from a panel of investors. The show’s five “dragons’’ agreed on air to give Gulak $1.25 million; Gulak says only one has invested.

In Boston, though, Gulak connected with Jonathan Seelig, a venture capitalist and one of the founders of Akamai Technologies Inc. (Seelig was also an investor in Zipcar Inc.) Impressed by Gulak’s passion and negotiating prowess, he put money into BPG.

Many prospective Uno owners may want one purely as a first-on-the-block status symbol, affording them the chance to show off its transformation from balance mode to bike mode. But Gulak says it’s practical, too: Riders can take the bike into an elevator and keep it inside, rather than locking it on the street. There’s also a “green’’ angle: The Uno can be recharged from a standard outlet and travel about 30 miles on a full charge.

Gulak suggests the Uno will be a blend of utility and sex appeal. “We’re such a visual society,’’ he says. “The electric scooters you can buy today are completely undifferentiated.’’

As for the Segway, the vehicle to which the Uno is often compared, Gulak says it may have simply been too nerdy-looking to appeal to mainstream consumers. (The Segway ran into the kind of chicken-and-egg problem that could confront the Uno: introduced at $5,000, it was never able to sell enough units to help bring the price down.)

When I called two motorcycle dealers, asking them to look at BPG’s website and videos of the Uno, I got the diametrically opposed reactions the vehicle usually provokes. Brian Kent, a salesman at Greater Boston Motorsports in Arlington, said, “This thing definitely looks cool,’’ and the price wouldn’t be a deterrent because the Uno would never consume a gallon of gas. Kent told me he thought he could sell a few, even with a $6,000 or $7,000 price tag. But, he acknowledged, the dealership had recently tried to sell an electric scooter priced at $3,300. “Selling the one we had in inventory took a year and a half,’’ he said.

At Riverside Motorsports in Somerville, general manager Joe Conley said, “It has no practicality. Making the thing behave like a Segway is wasted money, because once you have a moped sticker or a license plate on it, you’re not allowed to drive it on the sidewalk.’’ Conley said his customers like the idea of an electric scooter, but a $7,000 one would be “a real hard sell.’’

Another Massachusetts company, Vectrix LLC, found that out the hard way. Vectrix, of New Bedford, spent more than $70 million developing zippy-looking electric scooters priced around $10,000. Vectrix filed for bankruptcy in 2009, was acquired by a Chinese battery-maker, and is now trying to rebuild its dealer network and introduce lower-priced products.

Plenty of companies have trouble attracting any attention: BPG has received millions of dollars of publicity, without spending much at all. But the company faces other hurdles, such as raising money, designing a reliable and safe vehicle, and, perhaps, finding the right partner to help move from development to manufacturing. It’s still early for the Uno: Keefe, the lead engineer at BPG, says the December test ride was the first time he had successfully ridden the Uno in balance mode, then transitioned to bike mode without putting his feet on the ground.

Gulak faces his own challenges, like finishing his mechanical engineering degree at MIT while trying to bring Uno to market. Oh, and he is also the founder of a Canadian company, BPG Werks, developing an entirely different vehicle, the DTV Shredder. If you affixed tank treads to a Jet Ski . . . Well, you get the idea.

That vehicle has not been spotted in Cambridge, but Gulak suggests he may bring one across the border soon.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.