The Be.e is the first electric scooter to be made out of hemp. It also happens to boast a hip, sleek industrial design, features a battery with an 8-year life and 2000 cycles, as well as a 4kW motor, LED lighting, USB charging (yeah!), a smartphone holder, GPS tracking, and various other accoutrements. It almost seems too strange to be true.
So when I contacted the eco-scooter company Van.Eko, I didn't expect a near-instant reply. But that's what I got. Founder and Be.e designer Vaniek Colenbrander, who's based in Amsterdam, emailed me back immediately, and we hopped on Skype. The light on his end wasn't good, but even so, I could see a mass of curly, floppy hair belonging to a man who was jazzed up about his scooter, and probably exhausted from more than a fair share of international press and dealer attention.
I spoke with Colenbrander about the plant material used in the Be.e's construction (industrial hemp), the genesis of the idea, his AirBnB-esque plan for scooter's owners to rent their scooters, and how he will encourage users to choose the manner in which they electrically power the bike. Oh, and he wanted me to emphasize that the Be.e is currently not in production. You're not putting in an order after you read this interview. He still needs to find some more investment money to bring it to the world.
Motherboard: What was the genesis of Van.Eko and the Be.e?
Vaniek Colenbrander: It started some time in 2007 for a my graduation project when I was studying industrial engineering at TUDelft here in the Netherlands. I got into contact with the company named QWIC, and they wanted to explore the area of bio-based materials and its application in a light vehicle—that being a scooter. They specialized in electric, so that's how it all got started. We were granted government funding so we could make a prototype, of which there are still some images available here and there on the internet. But, that was really just a proof-of-concept. From there, the idea just sat in the refridgerator for awhile as we thought of how to do something with the materials and double check on business plans, because the costs involved for a low-scale are expensive since it is made by few hands here in the Netherlands, compared to millions of hands in a Chinese factory.
We were also kind of waiting on more funding to help push forward development. That funding came from another university, InHolland. They wanted to have a project which would be a collaboration with an SME (small and medium enterprise) business in an innovative area that would cut across several faculties: communication and branding, but also FEM analysis, material analysis, and construction stuff, and some other areas. So they did a lot of small-scale research for us—that is, me, QWIC (at the time), NPSP (Nebraska Peter Simon Peter) Composieten, and WAARMAKERS designers. It resulted in this concept that was designed by WAARMAKERS. NPSP Composieten are the manufacturers of the actual plant-based bio-composite.
I was pretty much the end customer for all of the deliverables, being the final engineer to get the parts together to fit into the production process and to make sure the whole thing, in the end, becomes a scooter. That's where Van.Eko comes in. In the last six months we've put together a business model to bring it to market.
That's interesting that two universities were part of the funding mechanism for a company. Here in America, the idea that universities would fund a business would be perceived as a tree-hugging, socialist conspiracy. I'm joking, but kind of serious.
[Laughs] From the perspective of university investors, they want to stimulate the synergy between colleges and practically-oriented research. The idea is to put the research near the actual work—this was their goal. They also wanted to put together a teaching program, and this project is now a case study that they use for future assignments.
Right on. Let's talk about how you were inspired to go in a plant matter-based direction for manufacture.
Well, in making an electric scooter, you want to make a better product. And, from my perspective as an industrial designer, I want to make a product that is better in every respect, or at all levels. Where we're at in the world is building products with oil-based plastics, or from steel that has to be treated with chemicals to not rust and last longer, and various laborious processes in bad environments like Chinese workshops. From those perspectives, yeah, I was looking at the entire material chain loop, and looking for better materials. And I stumbled across these bio-based composites, which are actually a follow-up of glass and carbon fiber composites. So, they have similar strength properties. They are stronger than glass fiber, though not carbon.
Glass and carbon fibers are the real pollutants, even though everyone seems to be cool with carbon fiber everything. But, creating one fiber of carbon costs around a 1,000x the energy of making a fiber of glass. And making a fiber of glass costs about 100x the energy of making a hemp fiber. The energies involved in making the raw material are really large in that domain. The bad thing is that with the glass fiber polyester—with which boats, wind turbines, and a lot entertainment park stuff are being made—you can't dispose of it. You can't burn it, so the only thing you can do is put it in a landfill. In that respect, the nature-base composites were very viable materials.
Also, putting nature-based composites into a scooter makes it sturdy and rough, as opposed to scooters made out of a steel frame and ABS or polypropylene parts, which are very fragile. I've already experienced the plant-based composites' robustness. We had four scooters in a truck that weren't fixed in place well, and so they piled on top of each other once we stopped. Luckily, nothing was broken because of the strength of the material. But, we still have to do a true crash test, which is something I want to do. [Laughs] But, I only have two that are driving around right now, so I'm hesitant to crash them and see what happens.
How are the Be.e's parts made from the plant-based material—in this case, hemp?
You start off with industrial hemp, or marijuana or whatever you want to call. You can smoke it, but nothing is going to happen. So the plant grows really quickly because it's weed—it's not called weed for nothing. It shoots out of the ground. In four months you have a plant that is four-and-a-half or five meters high, and you leave that to weather. The fibers are taken off in a completely natural process, and are then woven into non-woven or woven mats. Woven mats are flex fibers, which are common in linen, jeans, and all sorts of clothing. They're really strong fibers. These are placed into a mold, which is then closed, vacuumed out from one end, and from another end a polyester-based resin drops into the void between the two molds and where the resin is at. VARTM (Vacuum-Assisted Resin Transfer Molding) is the production process we use.
At the moment the resin is still a 50 percent oil-based resin, but there are experimental, 100 percent bio-based resins available. These are made from a combination of sugars, alcohols, and polylactic acids which are yeasted into resin that then cures at room temperature. That's a highly chemical process with which we try to use bio-based components, and, as much as possible, non-food-related materials.
And the Be.e bio-scooter is 100 percent electric?
Yes. But, the end user can choose what type of electricity he or she uses, whether it comes from solar, coal, oil, wind, tidal or nuclear-based processes. The only fuel that I feel is sustainable for us as human beings is the sun. The oil transition will lead us to solar energy; allowing, of course, for politics to do their thing, which we humble people talking to each other over Skype have no power over. Everyone focusing on electric vehicles should be thinking that we are reducing local emissions where people live. The pollution is from cars, motorcycles, buses, and transport. It's not from the industry on the city sidelines, it's transport. So, make it electric and at least you don't have those emissions anymore.
So, what are you looking to do in the short term as far as bringing it to market: launch it in the Netherlands?
Yes, but the main thing is that I'm looking for investors at the moment to build out the business plan. And, the business plan is not that I'm going to be selling the scooter. Why? Well, because of the raw materials' long life cycle, durable materials, and somewhat more expensive production process, the costs would be nowhere near a price point that people currently pay for electric scooters. The advantage is that you can put on shitloads of miles without any wear and tear because the engine is a hot motor in the rear wheel with one powered moving part. I'm also using batteries with 2,000 cycles, so you could do daily trips of 60 miles for around eight to ten years. That's why you would be paying somewhere around $11,000 for the product as it is now.
I'm going to be owning the scooter as a company myself and sub-renting it to what I call Be.eKeepers. They have a monthly subscription, which will cover the first full year. After that, they can end it in whatever month they want. But, if they want to go on with the rental, it just goes on.
And the Be.eKeeper plan is something like AirBnB. Can you explain how that will work?
They can offer the scooter on my Van.Eko website for times in which they don't use it, which will function like AirBnB. Through the site, someone who I call a WannaBe.e can reserve the scooter. They can see that a guy lives in a certain part of Amsterdam or New York City, for example, and say, "Hey, I'm getting there around 10:00am, if you're there, I'll use your scooter for a couple of hours." He then pays his fee to the user for a couple of hours through his web account, while the user then gets a discount on his monthly fee. In the end, my subscriber could use the scooter for nearly free.
And if he's willing to hardly use the scooter for himself and pretty much rent it out the whole time, he could actually earn some money on it. Quite a significant amount of money if the viral effect really gets going. My site will offer insurance and liability. The Bee.Keepers can still rent the scooter without me knowing, but if they do not go through my website and there is an accident, I can track people back and make sure them that they assume all liability in that case.