U.K.-based startup HumanForest has suspended its nascent “free” e-bike service in London this week, after experiencing “mechanical” issues and after a user had an accident on one of its bikes, TechCrunch has learned. The suspension has also seen the company make a number of layoffs with plans to re-launch next spring using a different e-bike.
The service suspension comes only a few months after HumanForest started the trial in North London — and just a couple of weeks after announcing a $2.3 million seed round of funding backed by the founders of Cabify and others.
We were tipped to the closure by an anonymous source who said they were employed by the startup. They told us the company’s e-bike had been found to have a defect and there had been an accident involving a user, after which the service was suspended. They also told us HumanForest fired a bunch of staff this week with little warning and minimal severance.
Asked about the source’s allegations, HumanForest confirmed it had suspended its service in London following a “minor accident” on Sunday, saying also that it had identified “problems of a similar nature” prior to the accident but had put down those down to “tampering or minor mechanical issues”.
Here’s its statement in full: “We were not aware that the bike was defective. There had been problems of a similar nature which were suspected to be tampering or minor mechanical issues. We undertook extra mechanical checks which we believed had resolved the issue and informed the supplier. We immediately suspended operations following the minor accident on Sunday. The supplier is now investigating whether there is a more serious problem with the e-bike.”
In an earlier statement the startup also told us: “There was an accident last week. Fortunately, the customer was not hurt. We immediately withdrew all e-bikes from the street and we have informed the supplier who is investigating. Our customers’ safety is our priority. We have, therefore, decided to re-launch with a new e-bike in Spring 2021”.
HumanForest declined to offer any details about the nature of the defect that caused it to suspend service but a spokeswoman confirmed all its e-bikes were withdrawn from London streets the same day as the accident, raising questions as to why it did not do so sooner — having, by its own admission, already identified “similar problems”.
The spokeswoman also confirmed HumanForest made a number of job cuts in the wake of the service suspension.
“We are very sorry that we had to let people go at this difficult time but, with operations suspended, we could only continue as a business with a significantly reduced team,” she said. “We tried very hard to find a way to keep people on board and we looked at the possibility of alternative contractual arrangements or employment but unfortunately, there are no guarantees of when we can re-launch.”
“Employees who had been with the company for less than three months were on their probation period which, as outlined in their contract, had one week’s notice. We will be paying their salaries until the end of the month,” she said, reiterating that it’s a difficult time for the startup.
The e-bikes HumanForest was using for the service appear to be manufactured by the Chinese firm Hongji — but are supplied by a German startup, called Wunder Mobility, which offers both B2C and B2B mobility services.
We contacted both companies to ask about the e-bike defect reported by HumanForest.
At the time of writing only Wunder Mobility had responded — confirming it acts as “an intermediary” for HumanForest but not offering any details about the nature of the technical problem.
Instead, it sent us this statement, attributed to its CCO Lukas Loers: “HumanForest stands for reliable quality and works continuously to improve its services. In order to offer its customers the best possible range of services in the sharing business, HumanForest will use the winter break to evaluate its findings from the pilot project in order to provide the best and most sustainable solution for its customers together with Wunder Mobility in the spring.”
“Unfortunately, we cannot provide any information about specific defects on the vehicles, as we have only acted as an intermediary. Only the manufacturer or the operator HumanForest can comment on this,” it added.
In a further development this week, which points to the competitive and highly dynamic nature of the nascent micromobility market, another e-bike sharing startup, Bolt — which industry sources suggest uses the same model of e-bike as HumanForest (its e-bike is visually identical, just painted a more lurid shade of green) — closed its e-bike sharing service in Paris, a few months after launching in the French capital.
When we contacted Bolt to ask whether it had withdrawn any e-bikes because of technical issues it flat denied doing so — saying the Paris closure was a business decision, and was not related to problems with its e-bike hardware.
“We understand some other companies have had issues with their providers. Bolt hasn’t withdrawn any electric bikes from suppliers due to defects,” a spokesperson told us, going on to note it has “recently” launched in Barcelona and trailing “more announcements about future expansion soon”.
In follow-up emails the spokesperson further confirmed it hasn’t identified any defects with any e-bikes it’s tested, nor withdrawn any bikes from its supplier.
Bolt’s U.K. country manager, Matt Barrie, had a little more to say in a response to chatter about the various micromobility market moves on Twitter — tweeting the claim that: “Hardware at Bolt is fine, all good, the issues that HumanForest have had are with their bespoke components.”
“The Paris-Prague move is a commercial decision to support our wider business in Prague. Paris a good market and we hope to be back soon,” he added.
We asked HumanForest about Barrie’s claim that the technical issues with its hardware are related to “bespoke components” — but its spokeswoman declined to comment.
HumanForest’s twist on the e-bike sharing model is the idea of offering free trips with in-app ads subsidizing the rides. Its marketing has also been geared towards pushing a “greener commute” message — touting that the e-bike batteries and service vehicles are charged with certified renewable energy sources.