ViaCycle, a new Y Combinator-backed startup, wants to be to bike sharing what Zipcar has become for cars. While there are many cities around the world where bike sharing is a fact of daily life, only a few cities in the U.S. currently offer similar programs and the ones that exist are often expensive to operate. The viaCycle team, which has been working on its platform for three years, uses a very different approach from most of its competitors. Unlike other systems, viaCycle doesn’t need special docking stations for its bikes, for example. The team has developed its own hardware that is integrated into the bikes to lock and unlock them through a phone call, text or via the company’s mobile app. This means viaCycle bikes can be locked to standard bike racks anywhere and the cost of getting started is significantly lower than with similar systems.
The system is currently being tested with 40 bikes on Georgia Tech’s campus in Atlanta and it’s also coming to George Mason University in the fall. ViaCycle will also launch its first pilot program in San Francisco in the next few weeks, starting with one location outside of the HUB co-working space in SOMA.
Here is how this system works for users: after you become a registered customer, you just use the viaCycle app or send a text with the bike’s number and your PIN code to unlock the bike. Most of the technology that makes this system works sits on the back of the bike. A small battery pack holds the locking mechanism (which uses a sturdy chain lock) and a GPS system to track the bikes. As the company’s co-founder and CEO Kyle Azevedo told me earlier this week, the pack can be powered via small solar cells or a dynamo. All of the back-end systems are hosted on viaCycles servers, which can also provide detailed analytics data back to the companies and municipalities that decide to offer viaCycles services.
All of this isn’t free, of course. The San Francisco pilot project, for example, will probably cost users about $5 for a day pass and memberships will cost about $20/month or $80/year. What makes viaCycle so interesting, however, is that it is really a platform and mostly leaves the day-to-day business activities to others. On the Georgia Tech campus, for example, students can get the bikes for up to 30 minutes for free. After that, users pay standard usage fees. With a $5.95/month premium subscription, however, users only start paying after they have used the bike for more than 2 hours.
As Azevedo told me, companies, colleges and others who want to bring viaCycle to their campuses and cities typically pay about $20 per bike per month for the system. In addition, there is also an upfront cost of about $1,000 to $1,500 for every bike. While a city may decide to charge users to defray the cost, a large company with a big campus could decide to just offer the system to its users for free. This may sound expensive, but this system is far cheaper than its competitors. As Azevedo told me, “it’s practically a crime that cities are paying as much as they do for their [current] bike systems.”
The viaCycle team, which currently consists for the four co-founders and their first (part-time) employee, met at Georgia Tech and has been working on the system (and especially on how to make the bikes talk to the server without using too much power) for a few years now. The company has won a number of accolades since. ViaCycle, for example, won the MIT Clean Energy Prize in the transportation category in 2010, received a $50,000 grant from Ford and won StartupRiot Atlanta 2012. The team is currently part of the Y Combinator Summer 2012 class and has started to think about how to adapt its technology to other markets outside of bike sharing, too.