Tech

The Superstrata Ion: Tesla’s ambition squeezed into a sick custom e-bike

With the world’s first unibody carbon fiber bike frame, 3D-printed to your personal body size, the Ion is an ambitious e-bike. Can it deliver?

"We're saying that we can [make our Superstrata Ion e-bike for people] as small as 4'7" and up to 7'4"," says Sunny Vu, CEO of Arevo. “It's actually more than 7'4” — we joke that we're trying to get Shaq's attention.”

Superstrata is Arevo's bike brand with goals of becoming the Tesla of the e-bike world. Vu and I casually chatted over a Zoom video call (because that’s the new normal in 2020) last week. Both of us in our apartments; his video turned on and mine turned off because I, honestly, looked so worn down from several video calls prior to ours.

Vu wasted no time telling me about the Ion, an electric bike Superstrata is touting as the world’s first bespoke 3D-printed e-bike frame made of “impact-resistant unibody carbon fiber frame.” He clicked through a few renders on his shared screen and I couldn’t stop myself from unmuting my microphone to tell him how pretty the e-bike looked. I was even more ecstatic when he later showed me photos of the e-bike shot in the same fluorescent-lit location that Christopher Nolan used for the Batcave in his Batman trilogy starring Christian Bale.

Interest in e-bikes is exploding as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic challenges people to find alternatives to crowded public transportation and eco-friendly substitutes for gas-guzzling cars. E-bikes are going mainstream and are no longer only for enthusiasts. Demand for e-bikes has skyrocketed in both the U.S. and Europe where bikes have seen wider embrace in the last decade.

Launching a new product, especially one that is not cheap (but still very affordable relative to other bikes made of carbon fiber) in the current recession and as the pandemic rages on is going to be tough for any company. For Superstrata, the sudden boom in e-bike interest and sales makes now the perfect time to sell people its Ion e-bike, which goes up for pre-order today on Indiegogo starting at $3,999 and ships in December.

Design history

The Ion is what Arevo is announcing today, but who’s behind the startup bike brand and why should anyone trust them when there are dozens of more established e-bike brands like VanMoof or Trek to throw money at?

Interestingly enough, Vu was not a biker prior to becoming CEO of Arevo. He founded Misfit, the wearable brand behind the Shine and Flash, before selling it to Fossil Group and becoming President and CTO of its Connected Devices division.

His background, as he put it, is in design and that’s where he thinks e-bikes could use some more attention and innovation.

“When we did Misfit, I didn't know anything about watches or wearables or anything like that,” Vu said. “Our vision was fairly clear and it was: let's not try to reach the folks who were already exercising. They don't need wearables and if they do, they need heart-rate monitoring and topographic maps and all this fancy stuff. So I say, you know, how about the people who want to be exercising, but can't be bothered with all this technology? So that was kind of what we focused on at Misfit. “

Come on, that's a hot bike.Superstrata

Vu’s applying the same design-first sensibilities to the Ion. “I wanted to develop something that borrowed from the Misfit playbook,” Vu said. “Something that's heavily design-skewed, something that's really beautiful, and not just functional. [We’re targeting] people who want to be cycling and they have some money to buy something nice, but they're not going to drop $8,000 on a new Specialized Tarmac or whatever popular bikes are out there.”

Making technology less complicated with functional design helped Vu collect $260 million when he sold Misfit to Fossil Group. In a commodified market, design is often what makes a new brand’s product stand out. Essentially, Superstrata can do for e-bikes what Apple has done for smartphones or Tesla has done for electric cars.

Custom for you

Yes, they actually went to the Batcave location to shoot the Ion.Superstrata

The pitch for the Ion isn’t another me-too electric bike that gets you from point A to point B. Each Ion is custom made to the buyer/rider with a frame, fork, handlebars, etc. that are 3D printed to a person and their preferred riding stance. “The process for getting your bike is you send in your clothes size, basically your shirt size,” Vu said.

“So 17-inch neck, 44-inch arm, 34-inch waist, 32-inch pants, 180 pounds, and desired riding positions you want like a race bike or street bike or gravel or touring bike,” Vu said. “The algorithms then compute the frame and the fork ideal for you. Every frame and fork is completely unique to the rider and so it really fits you like a glove. It's like a custom-tailored suit except it's a bike. The fork is simple, but it's actually quite complex because we have to take into consideration the arm length [in relation to] the tires, as well as the ride position, and so every fork is actually bespoke as well.”

The process for getting your bike is you send in your clothes size, basically your shirt size.”

As a short person, I’m intrigued by the bespoke design of the bike. It's surely better than not being able to buy a VanMoof S3, which is designed specifically for tall people. It’s not uncommon for me to not feel comfortable on many bikes. For example, the Citibikes that you can rent here in New York City are pretty horrible in terms of finding the right seat height for my feet to meet the pedals, while at the same time reaching the bike handles without hunching forward. It’s weird. While I obviously haven’t tried every bike, I haven’t had much success finding one that I absolutely love which is why I don’t own one yet, despite being a very happy electric skateboard and e-scooter rider.

“You got small, medium, and large, or small and large in many cases, for many of the bike makers and that's it,” Vu said of other e-bikes. “If that doesn't fit you, then you're going to just have to adjust your seat like way down or way up. That's not the case here when you get on your bike. This might sound kind of weird but you will actually look great because it looks like the bike fit was made for you.”

Superstrata says there will be “over 500,000 possible combinations.” Beyond the frame, there’s also the wheels to consider. “We're going to be limited to the tire size — I think there's generally two or three kinds of diameters for tires — so those can't change too much,” Vu said. “We're not going to be making bespoke tires anytime soon. That would be a pretty tough business.”

The company is, however, offering two kinds of wheel spoke designs: metal and carbon fiber. The metal looks like your regular bike spokes. But the carbon fiber straight-up looks like it’s from a sci-fi movie (it’ll cost a bundle, too).

Unibody strong

The carbon fiber frame is so strong, there's no need for a seat tube.Superstrata

Vu also believes the structural design of the Ion’s carbon fiber frame is the key differentiator of Superstrata bikes from other e-bike brands like VanMoof or Specialized or Trek. The secret, Vu said, is Arevo’s 3D carbon fiber printing.

Arevo specializes in making "ultra-strong, lightweight, continuous carbon fiber products on demand" according to its website. Unlike other carbon fiber bike frames, which are made up of multiple pieces and connected together at different joints, the Ion’s using Arevo’s 3D carbon fiber printing technology to produce a single unibody piece.

"Some [carbon fiber bike frames are made of] as much as 25 to 30 pieces and they're usually glued together, bolted together, or laser-welded together,” Vu said. “If you hit a tree it's going to go back to a bunch of different pieces. With our product, the entire frame actually comes out of our 3D printer as one piece. There's no cuts or anything like between the fibers. It's continuous and actually made from one fiber going through the whole thing so it's super strong.”

The benefit of a singular 3D carbon fiber frame is greater strength and durability. Vu claims the Ion’s frame is the “strongest carbon fiber bike on the market because of this structure.”

It’s hard to disagree that the Ion is a very striking e-bike. The tube-less seat design immediately caught my attention. Vu said it’s not just for looks. “Part of it is design and part of it is just to show what we can do [with Arevo’s 3D carbon fiber printing].”

“It's made using the same process made for F-22 [fighter jet planes].”

As we talked deeper about the design, Vu really completely dove in. “We want to show that off, that we can support a guy like [Shaq] without a seat tube on a carbon fiber bike. We could totally do that.”

“One of the things that's making the frame strong aside from the unibody structure is the fact that we're using thermoplastic carbon fiber composite as opposed to thermoset. So 100 or 99.999-whatever percent of carbon fiber bikes right now are made through what's called a thermoset process, which is where you get a bunch of carbon fiber fibers and you lay it out and then you press it on sheets of plastic.

“You're laying these sheets up and you form it into a shape, then you apply some heat to it to make it stick around a mold, and that's how carbon fiber structures are made right now. It's super, super time intensive and there's a reason why those bikes cost like $8,000 to $10,000. What's interesting is when you do use a thermoset process, it's actually fairly fragile, not just the structure itself, but the joints and the seams.

“We use thermoplastic which is plastic that you actually melt with a laser and so it becomes a much stronger bond. It's made using the same process made for F-22 [fighter jet planes]. The composites that are used there are all thermoplastic, not thermoset.” Vu would know. Arevo makes “force thrust positioning fins” for jets he said.

The specs

So that’s what you need to know about the amount of design and engineering that’s backing the Ion. The first batch of buyers might be sold just on the unibody carbon fiber construction and bespoke design alone, but a pretty body won’t go far if it doesn’t perform on the streets. So here’s what the Ion is packing according to Superstrata:

Frame:

  • Carbon fiber frame weight: 2.9 pounds (1.4 kilograms)
  • 61x stronger than steel
  • 15x stronger than titanium
  • 50 percent stronger than Kevlar

Performance:

  • 250W rear-hub motor
  • Range: Assisted riding up to 60 miles (96 km)
  • Top speed: up to 20 mph (32 km/h)
  • 11-speed gear

Battery:

  • 125Wh or 252Wh (upgrade option) battery
  • 2-hour charging time

Tech stuff:

  • Anti-theft protection
  • GPS
  • Power sensors
  • Upgradeable motors
  • Phone charging port
  • Trip recorder
  • Expansion bays

The unibody carbon fiber frame seems to be the most impressive part of the Ion. No surprise since Superstrata is prioritizing design. The performance — at least on paper — leaves a lot to be desired.

Its 125Wh battery is vastly underpowered compared to many e-bikes like the VanMoof S3 (504Wh) or a basic Super73-ZI (418Wh) or Priority Embark (400Wh), which limits its range. “We didn't want to wipe out all of our weight advantage by adding a bunch of batteries, so it's just a very basic 125Wh battery,” Vu said.

The top speed is at least comparable to the VanMoof S3 and enough for several days worth of trips in a city or around town. The 20 mph top speed is what Superstrata has listed right now. The final performance may change. Vu was confident the Ion could faster. “The max speed is about 20 mph — you're going to go over 25 miles an hour — but we're going to govern it to 25 mph.”

Though the Ion will only have a single battery configuration at launch, Vu said they’re already planning more powerful options that’ll, of course, cost more.

“We do have different tiers of batteries coming out later,” Vu said. “We can just make the [battery compartment] a little bit fatter. We're actually making another version that has double the batteries [252Wh] so if you want more range, just get the larger one.”

I asked Vu if the battery is swappable or replaceable. Unfortunately, it’s not. However, he didn’t rule out the idea for future versions or as add-on configurations. He said it wouldn’t be too difficult to design the battery compartment with a bottom-facing hatch for easy removal. For the launch Ion, Vu said the batteries have been tested to last “many, many hundreds of cycles.”

Earth friend

Sleek and clean.Superstrata

One of the things I always like to ask companies is where their products are made. Can people feel good knowing that they're paying more for fair labor or better quality materials?

“[The Ion] is a citizen of the world,” Vu told me. The carbon fiber frame is made in the U.S., many of the internal components are made in Japan, and the final assembly is done in Vietnam. “I guess technically we have to ‘Made in Vietnam’.”

I don’t know if that’s enough to influence potential buyers, but there you have it. On the plus side, the thermoplastic carbon fiber composite frame is green.

“It's 100 percent recyclable materials. It's thermoplastic so you can actually melt it again and it's no problem,” Vu said. “It's carbon fiber, so the carbon is actually in some ways one of the most permanent sequestration forms of sequestered carbon there is.” If you’re lost, Wikipedia defines carbon sequestration or carbon dioxide removal as: “the long-term removal, capture or sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to slow or reverse atmospheric CO2 pollution and to mitigate or reverse global warming.”

That’s just for the frame. The other stuff, the tires, lithium-ion battery, and all the other bits may have varying degrees of recyclability.

High ascent

Superstrata has a tall mountain to climb. I mean that both literally (I’m concerned about the Ion’s suspension and ability to climb hills) and figuratively. Vu never explicitly said during our video call that Superstrata is trying to become the Tesla of e-bikes, but it’s fairly obvious to me the vision is similar. Launch one design-focused e-bike using innovative technology (carbon fiber 3D printing in this case) and then scale as the electrified components improve. Remember: Tesla's original Roadster wasn't the affordable electric car revolution that Elon Musk initially promised. It took many more years for the Model 3 to come out.

$3,999 is a ton of money to throw at an e-bike. But as my colleague and e-bike enthusiast Evan Rodgers reassured me, it’s relatively cheap for a carbon fiber bike frame, which can often cost double or more.

The Ion is Superstrata’s flagship product, but it’s also going to sell the Terra, a non-electric version for less. Almost everything from the 3D-printed unibody carbon fiber frame to the bespoke options are identical to the Ion. Of course, without a battery or motor inside, it’s also slightly smaller. Also important for some people: it costs less: starting at $2,799. But it’s non-electric and isn’t as cool so it gets a small note.

We didn't want to go Tron, or super hyper-futuristic where the bike just looks totally funky because we just don't think people are going to want to ride it.”

There’s some good news if you move fast. A very limited number (about 500) of bikes will be available at early special pricing on the Indiegogo campaign: starting at $1,299 for the Terra and $1,799 for the Ion, which I’m told are very close to margins and Superstrata wouldn’t be making much money off this initial batch. Vu says the promo is simply to get the ball rolling.

The only real question now is whether or not you want to put your money in a crowdfunding campaign. For every successful crowdfunding campaign like the Oculus Rift, there's a disaster story like the Coolest Cooler. As of an hour after publication, the Superstrata campaign has already exceeded its $100,000 goal by 500 percent, and there are still 31 days to go. Crushing a campaign goal, of course, is no promise the products will ship. Arevo's background making fighter jet parts and Vu's background in delivering products at Misfit is somewhat reassuring, though.

Before Vu and I hit the end call button, I can’t resist asking him if they considered going completely wild with the design like how the Cybertruck looks nothing like existing pickup trucks. A reasonable question, right?

“We didn't want to go Tron, or super hyper-futuristic where the bike just looks totally funky because we just don't think people are going to want to ride it,” Vu said. “It might be fun to write about or take pictures of, but we wanted something that was clearly different and beautiful, but 'oh yeah, that's a bike’ not some weird two-wheel vehicle. Because at the end of the day, we need to sell these things as well and not just make a museum piece.”