Walking was never Kyle Doerksen's preferred mode of transportation.

In 2009, while working as an engineer at the Palo Alto, California, design firm Ideo, Doerksen often had to walk a mile between the train station and Ideo's San Francisco office, where he sometimes worked. The trip along the San Francisco Bay to the pier where the office stood was a scenic journey, but a pesky one on cold or time-crunched days.

"I was always walking along there, daydreaming about how if there was something I could have taken with me on the train, I'd be there by now," Doerksen says.

Building that thing soon took over Doerksen's nights and weekends. At the time, e-scooters as we know them today were still a ways off. His goal was to design the simplest vehicle possible. As an added bonus, it would recreate the feeling of snowboarding on fresh powder, a sensation he describes as "fluid and magical." The result, which he launched in 2014, was Onewheel--essentially a skateboard deck with a small tire punched through the center. It's motorized, electric, and can travel up to seven miles on a single charge.

Future Motion, the startup Doerksen founded to sell his new invention, is one of many companies to launch in the budding micromobility industry in recent years. An increase in urbanization--60 percent of the world's population will live in cities by 2030--and improvements in technology have made the space ripe for entry. According to Zion Market Research, the personal electric vehicle market is expected to grow from $7.1 billion worldwide in 2017 to $28.6 billion in 2024. Companies in this industry make products including e-bikes, e-scooters and, yes, e-skateboards. 

"There's a revolution happening in transportation, especially urban transportation," says Todd Dagres, co-founder of San Francisco-based venture capital firm Spark Capital, which invested in e-bike company Superpedestrian. Helping drive this revolution are the recent advancements in small-battery manufacturing, according to Dagres. "Battery technology is now affordable," he says. "The batteries are getting to the point where you can cost-effectively deploy them."

That technology is part of what made Onewheel possible. When Doerksen sat down to build his product in 2009, batteries were still bulky and didn't hold enough of a charge, so he tabled the idea for a few years. After Ideo created e-bike company Faraday Bicycles in 2012, using some of the newest batteries and motors on the market, Doerksen turned back to his bulky prototype. "I said, 'Let's tidy this up into something more refined.'" 

In 2014, Doerksen launched a Kickstarter campaign to support the development of his product. The campaign raised $630,000 in three weeks, blowing past its $100,000 target. The interest was there. Now he just needed to execute. He quit his job, made his first few hires, and started assembling the real thing. Within a few months, his new startup had delivered its first board. 

Today, Future Motion has 40 employees and $7 million in funding. While Doerksen won't reveal revenue numbers, he says demand for the boards--which cost $1,399 and $1,799 for a longer-range version--has allowed the company's bottom line to double each year. Many buyers are mixed-use customers: They ride their Onewheels to work Monday through Friday, and hit the streets or trails for fun on weekends.

"Transportation is not just about utility. It's also about personal expression," Doerksen says. "People who get into Onewheel love snowboarding or surfing, but they can't really do either of those in Manhattan. So they get their fix while they zoom to work for 20 minutes."

That's not to say riding on a single-wheeled skateboard that darts up to 19 mph is for everyone--there's definitely a learning curve. But thanks to built-in stabilization, it's not as difficult as, say, learning to snowboard. And controls are fairly intuitive: Riders lean forward to go and backward to brake.

One obstacle standing in the way of wide-scale adoption for just about all micromobility companies is regulation. Different states and cities have varying degrees of regulations designating the types of personal vehicles that can be ridden, and where--bike lanes, sidewalks, streets, and so on. Scooter companies like Bird and Lime have learned the hard way what happens when you launch without asking permission: Both were told to remove their e-scooters from San Francisco's streets earlier this year, and then were denied participation in the city's inaugural scooter pilot program.

For its part, Future Motion remains mostly insulated from such crackdowns, since its boards are personally owned and not part of a shared fleet. Even so, in some areas, Onewheels can be ridden only in bike lanes. 

Still, Doerksen thinks there's plenty of room on the roads for electronic skateboards, scooters, bikes, and whatever else people dream up next. 

"It's not winner-take-all," he says. "Different people have very different personalities and values and want to ride different things. That's what allows this to be a vibrant space."

Published on: Dec 4, 2018