Superpedestrian is a company that's actually re-inventing the wheel

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on December 3, 2013

From The News Desk

While a future sans cars seems highly unlikely, Assaf Biderman has big plans for transportation. And he thinks a new wheel may be the first step in getting people's attention.

Biderman is the founder of the company Superpedestrian as well as the Associate Director of MIT's SENSEable City Lab. Today, Superpedestrian put its first product on the market: the Copenhagen Wheel.

The gadget is installed in lieu of a rear wheel of a bicycle, and transforms a normal bike into an electric-powered mobile. Superpedestrian uses its own technology to track how one peddles and then uses this information to phase the motor in and out of each trip. It knows when a biker needs support and when it doesn't. In addition to peddling, it learns and tracks the road's topography as well. Biderman calls the brains behind this device a "smart-embedded control system."

In short, the Copenhagen Wheel is like an added pair of legs that know when a biker is feeling tired.

Biderman, who has a background in physics and human-computer interaction, had been developing the Wheel at the SENSEable Lab before he founded Superpedestrian in 2012. It all started in 2009 through a partnership with the city of Copenhagen. The project aimed to design a device that would "make every city bikeable."

So, at MIT, Biderman and his associates worked to make prototype for the wheel. The intent was to build a device that would be "fun and intuitive -- like riding a normal bike." After three years of development, MIT patented the technology. Once the idea was mature enough, Biderman decided to spin it out into a formal company. It operated in stealth for about a year, and announced a round of funding last month.

Following today, anyone can buy the Copenhagen Wheel for $699. While that may seem steep for a mere bike wheel, Biderman is quick to remind you that the average electric bike costs between $2,500 and $3,500. For a rechargeable, lightweight device that helps bikers go upwards of 20 mph, he sees $700 as pretty acceptable.

Superpedestrian is Biderman's way of showing the world that biking can play a role in the future of transportation. "It's not about fashion or agenda," he said. It's about figuring out a way to make smarter transportation choices more accessible. "Many of us have bicycles in our garage," he told me. "If you make it fun, cheap, and beautiful, we have a whole new way to move around."

Biderman plans to continue building out the Wheel following this launch, and is in the process of negotiating some partnership, he told me. While Superpedestrian's technology could catch the eyes of bigger companies, Biderman doesn't see an acquisition on the horizon. "I think this company could grow to be a very successful standalone business," he said.

With programs like Citi Bike gaining momentum, and words like Hyperloop entering into our common lexicon, he may be right. Cities, Biderman reminds people, were built around the automobile. To him, the Copenhagen Wheel is a product that can circumvent this fact, thus making biking a little less daunting.

And imagine being able to complete a bike tour through the San Francisco hills without feeling like pure death and looking like a sweaty convalescent. Well, that would be a feat in and of itself.