The wheels are turning – electrically – for Michael Burtov '02
The Brandeis alumnus is the founder of GeoOrbital, a start-up that’s getting ready to distribute its first batch of electric bicycle wheels
Sometimes, inspiration comes in the unlikeliest of moments. For Michael Burtov '02, that moment was a late night watching "Tron: Legacy" two years ago.
The sci-fi sequel features a chase scene in a cyber world where the main character and the digital bad guys are riding futuristic motorcycles with wheels that are completely hollow in the middle.
"I thought, 'What if we could put something in those wheels?" Burtov said. "I'd seen stuff about e-bikes, but nothing like what I had conjured up in my head."
Despite having no background in engineering or bicycles – he majored in psychology at Brandeis – Burtov went into action, building a prototype of a front mounted electric powered bicycle wheel in his kitchen.
That was the start of Burtov's company GeoOrbital, which is now preparing to distribute its first batch of lithium ion battery powered bicycle wheels that feature top speeds of 20 miles per hour for a 20 mile range. The company has come a long way since Burtov dreamed up the wheel while watching a Disney movie. A former SpaceX engineer now oversees the technical aspects of the wheel, and the company has been infused with cash.
After being a bootstrap operation since it’s founding in 2014, GeoOrbital received $150,000 in an opening round of funding from angel investors early in 2016. Looking to raise more, Burtov turned to the online fundraising site Kickstarter, starting a campaign in May that sought a modest $75,000. That number was quickly shattered as the donations poured in. By the time the campaign ended after 45 days, the company had raised over $1.2 million.
"It was a surprise," Burtov said. "It validated our market, validated our product, and it made us grow much more quickly."
The first batch of GeoOrbital wheels, which retail for $950, are being manufactured at a plant in Massachusetts and will be distributed in November. The primary recipients of the wheels will be donors to the Kickstarter campaign – a wheel was promised to donors at certain levels – and to city-based services and delivery industry organizations.
Electric powered bicycles and electric bicycle accessories are a growing and increasingly competitive industry. What sets the GeoOrbital wheel apart from most of its competition is that it replaces the front wheel of the bike while most other electric wheels are rear mounted. This means that while it is not connected with the power drive of the bike, it can be attached or removed in about one minute.
It wasn't until after Burtov left Brandeis and decided to join the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan that he connected with his entrepreneurial spirit and began to think about it seriously. He founded three other companies since returning to the U.S. before starting the Cambridge-based GeoOrbital, and he’s hoping that this is the one that sticks – the global market for e-bikes is in the multibillions and growing.
"The world is really exploring mobility, anybody who needs to move stuff around a city, whether it is people or goods, they are looking for alternatives," Burtov said.
Watch the GeoOrbital wheel in action: