Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Revolights shine a glowing LED light on bike safety and design

October 17, 2011 - 10:55 AM
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A dazzling Revolights V4 prototype. (Photo: Revolights)

A new biking concept has generated an astonishing amount of enthusiasm in the biking world at the outset of fall 2011 — and the concept has spurred more than $200,000 of grassroots donations in just a couple months. What I'm talking about is Revolights, a concept pioneered by three young men living in Palo Alto, California: 29-year-old Adam Pettler, 36-year-old Jim Houk, and 28-year-old Kent Frankovich. On top of their day jobs, they've dreamed up a notion that they hope revolutionizes bike safety and has, in the past year, come to be called Revolights, which attaches flashy LED lights directly to the tires of a bicycle to improve visibility during night riding. Bike lights have existed in some form for more than a century but never quite like this.

Not only do the Revolights prototypes look slick as ever but they provide the safety that the biking world has long advocated and typically accomplishes now with lights attached to the front or rear of the bike frame. These three guys have hit social media and Kickstarter hard with this project and hope to begin selling Revolights for a couple hundred dollars starting next year. Their product updates mention how they approaches issues of light clips, product weight, the differing light colors offered, and more. Can you imagine these bright lights soaring along on the District's bicycle tires within the next 12 months? Between a rising bike-commuting population and an expanding Capital Bikeshare program inspiring other nascent cyclists, I see a distinct possibility that we will. Pictured here is their V4 model, which is continually being refined as the three men move forward, test, and hear feedback from their backers and other bicyclists.

Adam Pettler describes himself as "the mad scientist" of the founding trio on the Revolights Kickstarter page, the fundraising website responsible for countless projects in recent years (see Damon Ristau's documentary ode to the VW bus for another example). Pettler earned an MBA from the University of California-Davis, a bachelor's in molecular and cell biology from Berkeley, and works "nights and weekends" in the biotech industry. Here's his own take on how Revolights developed from an idea casually shared at a party to a project armed with endless updates, hundreds of thousands of dollars of funds, and a projected launch date for next spring.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: Revolights)

TBD On Foot: What first triggered the idea to create such a light, attached right onto the bike?

Adam Pettler: The first idea for the lights came to Kent, the inventor, while he was riding his bike home from grad school at Stanford. The thought was, if I'm using this handlebar mounted light mainly to light the road ahead of me, why wouldn't the light be a bit closer to the ground. As a mechanical engineer, he has a unique way of solving problems he encounters ... a bit different than most. So from there the idea was born, yet we quickly realized the benefits beyond the simple "near-the-ground" road illumination.

On Foot: How would you describe the benefits of these LED lights? Why would a bicyclist prefer these?

Pettler: Our lights provide added utility that no other light on the market currently provides. Bike lights contribute to rider safety in two ways: lighting (forward path illumination) and sighting (providing signaling to shared-road traffic in 360 degrees). The Revolights bike-lighting system achieves both of these in a new, efficient, unique presentation. Our lights provide utility, a unique look, and, we hypothesize, added safety. By using a front (white) and back (red) lights we made an effort to mimic the vehicular standard held by the auto industry, yet in a configuration very different from the typical car/truck/motorcycle headlight and tailight. The use of two unique arcs not only outlines the true front and back of the cycle, but also provides directionality of the cyclist, as well as a unique "I am a bike" identifier, all via a new, innovative approach to bike lighting (and with the use of persistence of vision, or POV).

On Foot: Let’s step back a second and talk about the guys behind Revolights. Are you all bicyclists yourselves?

Pettler: Kent, the inventor, is an avid cyclist. As for myself, I ride but am far from an avid cyclist. Instead, my brother is an avid cyclist. He goes on very long rides and has participated in many philanthropic significant riding events. Jim would subscribe to a similar riding routine as myself — we own bikes but are far from avid cyclists. In short, we all are bicyclists, some more than others.

On Foot: How did you three come to work together?

Pettler: I ran into Kent late in 2010 at a party at my brother's house. Kent is my younger brother's best friend; I've known him for more than 20 years. I was still in business school and hunting for an idea to develop. On his cell phone he showed me some of the concepts he was working on, and I quickly focused in on the wheel-mounted bike light. And while the product, still in prototype 1, was very raw, the concept was clear. I asked him if I could start putting together a business plan and he agreed. I brought on Jim to help dive into the business plan, and our work got under way. Now a bit further along, our roles have become much more defined. Over the last year the project has changed greatly. For the first nine months it was something we all kept very quiet about. We were excited, but unsure of what the level of acceptance would be amongst the general public. Yet after the Kickstarter launch, our roles and responsibilities were forced to become clearly defined a bit quicker than expected. Kent currently manages all technical aspects of the project, including engineering, design, manufacturing, etc. Jim manages most all day-to-day business activities: Twitter, email, biz systems, Facebook, as well as things like financial projections, etc. I've spent most my time working on business development; legal, creative direction, PR, insurance, etc. But the best thing about our team is that we are all involved in most every important decision and there really is a lot of overlap of duties. We check in with each other almost every night.

(Continue reading the Q&A with Adam Pettler after the jump)

On Foot: What are the biggest challenges so far?

Pettler: I would say the biggest challenges thus far have been two-fold: First, design. The design is a huge deal, with a ton of major challenges. We are receiving a massive amount of real-time feedback, which is very helpful, yet in this first product it is important we don't get too ahead of ourselves. We have a goal, and while we listen closely and are incorporating appropriate design aspects, we've made a real effort to keep in sight our original goals and targets.

Second, dealing with the overwhelming positive response. I remember I saw a commercial once, where three guys were sitting in front of a computer about to hit "launch". After they did, they were happy and excited, and then a "sale" went through and the computer made a beeping sound. They all went nuts and celebrated. But then the beeping got faster, and faster until it was very fast. The men were left standing still excited, in awe, and a little confused. In a lot of ways, this is a good analogy for what happened to us. We're just three guys working on a project together, with prototypes still being built and assembled in Kent's bedroom, and put on his bike for testing. But on day 8 of Kickstarter, when we achieved our $43,500 funding goal (meaning that we would receive the funding), we all fully committed to see Revolights, Inc. into the future.

Luckily we planned and planned well. We were and are prepared to deal with the many challenges. Still, the response thus far has even exceeded our expectations. Basically, long story short, we're up for the challenge.

On Foot: You seem to have really engaged people so far through social media, your website, and updates generally. How do you manage to coordinate all that?

Pettler: Jim is really the man responsible for our social media program. We know that this lighting idea is new, so we wanted to be very open with our process. Who we are, where we are, what the project is, and how the design has progressed thus far, etc. We really put a lot of thought into how we wanted to present the project, and we knew that things like answering questions in a timely manner was going to be important to keep people engaged and to get them to accept us. Having a single person responsible for day-to-day operations has been incredibly important for coordinating the many different social media outlets we've utilized (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Youtube, Vimeo, Flickr, etc.). We also wanted people to talk about it — the idea of organic buzz created by the product and presentation itself amongst blogs, in bike stores, on Facebook. We've coined the idea of "the revolution" (the peaceful revolution, the bike lighting revolution) or more specifically "join the revolution," to help characterize the movement toward accepting a new way of lighting on bikes. This is cultivated and furthered directly through social media. In order for any of this to be a success, our active engagement in the social media forums was and is critical ... and that's been all Jim.

Chocolate strawberries
Fundraising goal complete. (Photo: Revolights)

On Foot: And tell me a little about Kickstarter. You guys have raised some impressive cash so far — more than $200,000 in like two months. What did you expect going into Kickstarter and how has this funding influenced your planning?

Pettler: Kickstarter was an amazing fit for Revolights. We put up for opinion what we felt was a solution to a pretty pervasive social problem, and many people came to support it. We raised a little over $215,000 in seven weeks' time. Going into it, we kept our expectations realistic. We had very little public exposure prior, so we didn't fully know what to expect. We set our funding target, or goal at $43,500, and exceeded it by more than $170,000. We have all the love for Kickstarter, as we very much hope they become responsible for kickstarting the bike-lighting revolution. Kickstarter has accelerated some of our plans, but others were set already. It's certainly allowed us to begin thinking a bit more about in terms of the long term though, beyond the next year or two. It has made the entire project real to all of us. Before it was a light idea on a phone, a few prototypes, and a business plan. Now it's a project on a mission, a company, a revolution even.

On Foot: Any idea when you’ll be selling revolights and how much they’ll cost?

Pettler: We have a target of March 2012 for U.S. and Internet release, with international release to follow also in 2012. We will most likely have a pre-order period just before that, closer to the beginning of the year. Our manufacturer's suggested retail price is $220 U.S. for the Revolights bike lighting system.

On Foot: How would you describe the reaction and feedback from different biking communities so far?

Pettler: Reaction and feedback have been amazing. Everyone is surprised, and has an opinion one way or the other. We totally understand. Change is not easy. Yet overall, the response from all levels of the cycling community has been overwhelmingly positive. From retailers to distributors to the riders themselves. We feel this confirms the existence of a real problem, or opportunity (depending on the side of the coin). In regards to feedback, the cycling community is both a very engaged, activist community. We have received a massive amount of feedback to the tune of up to100-plus emails a day. And as we responded to each one of these, we let them all know that they were being taken into consideration. We've listened and listened closely.

On Foot: Your bios on Kickstarter allude to your other jobs in the field of medical devices and the biotech industry. Can you give me a sense of what it’s been like to juggle a project like this on top of your other work?

Pettler: Very busy. Everyone involved in the project has a full-time job. By doing this, no one would have personal financial needs from the project. No one is taking a salary, as we want the money garnered from Kickstarter to be used solely for the purpose of forwarding the project and product. In regards to time, the past months have been very busy. But everyone involved is highly capable. Everyone's dedication to our efforts has been amazing to say the least. Our progress amazes me regularly. Everyone still maintains their full-time work today.

On Foot: What’s your feeling about how the rest of the fall will play out for you guys? What’s next in the Revolights world?

Pettler: Well, if I told you what's next, it wouldn't be near as exciting.

Yet in the short term, we look forward to fulfilling our obligations to our Kickstarter backers. They've really been amazing, and I can't wait to hear when backers start getting their lights. That will be an awesome day. Otherwise, follow us on Twitter @revolights or Facebook or on our website, revolights.com, for regular project and product updates. Oh, we're also going to be displaying the V5 prototype at the upcoming San Francisco Bike Expo November 12-14th.

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