I was impressed by Elliot Wertheimer and Nick Fry’s symbiotic relationship, impressed by their zeal to keep existing VanMoof riders on the road, and impressed by their plan to gradually restart the VanMoof machine and expand into more areas of e-mobility.
I met with Wertheimer and his corporate chaperone Fry in London last week to discuss VanMoof’s future, at a time when some 200,000 riders have been left without components or service centers for their sophisticated e-bikes built with proprietary parts.
This isn’t another Kodak situation, I’m happy to report, where the VanMoof brand would be squeezed until it’s all but worthless. “It’s super important to us to retain what VanMoof was,” says Wertheimer. “So product engineering, product design, tech development is still in-house, fully. We have not outsourced it and we will not outsource any of that.”
Still, as impressive as everything sounds, it’s all talk for now. The first real test of the new company will begin soon.
The launch of VanMoof 2.0 involves a staggered rollout of replacement parts to retailers with in-house repair shops, a resumption of e-bike sales, and a new VanMoof-branded e-scooter in the first half of 2024… in that order, if all goes as planned. Key European markets are the initial focus.
The US remains a priority for VanMoof but timings there are less certain. The VanMoof legal entity in the US never declared bankruptcy and the operations there are undergoing restructuring alongside creditors. Wertheimer’s VanMoof is the legal owner of the US entity, but it’s being treated as a one-off compared to the rest of the company with its own unique timelines for a 2.0 launch.
Elliot Wertheimer (31) is the kitesurfing co-CEO of Lavoie with a background in aerospace engineering, while co-CEO Albert Nassar has a background in robotics — the two founded Furosystems e-bikes before joining McLaren Applied in an acquihire. Nick Fry (67) is the charismatic Chairman of McLaren Applied, and has largely been the face of the deal to buy the dregs of VanMoof after its demise. Fry is very much the “adult in the room,” as I’d call it, with a storied Formula One background where he led multiple F1 teams, including Mercedes.
But don’t confuse McLaren Group and its supercars with McLaren Applied, the tech division purchased by the UK-based private equity firm Greybull Capital in 2021. It was Greybull that appointed Fry into his current position at McLaren Applied, which focuses on delivering electrification, connectivity, telemetry, control, and analytic solutions for a range of vehicles, from motorsports to public transport and now, micromobility solutions.
The takeaway from my meeting with VanMoof’s new leadership is this: the company has a long runway to turn things around and plenty of seasoned executives and engineering resources to help it be successful. But it’s absolute priority right now is keeping riders on the road.
Greybull has deep pockets which means there’s no hurry for VanMoof to turn a profit. And because of the bankruptcy, the new leadership isn’t saddled with having to repay any of the substantial debt accumulated by VanMoof in recent years.
“It’ll take three years minimum before we start to see the thing has its head above the water,” says Fry of the VanMoof relaunch. “We’re not rushing into this. We’re going to go at a sensible pace.”
That also means significant investments, well beyond the €900,000 initial cash payment to the trustees and lawyers revealed in bankruptcy documents. The team is testing each part for quality, and it’s in the process of honoring a commitment to buy back inventories of components and bikes in various stages of assembly. As such, Fry and his Greybull backers expect to invest “tens of millions” into VanMoof before seeing any profit.
It also has salaries to pay. Lavoie quickly expanded from about 30 to over 130 employees after hiring back about 100 (of about 700) former VanMoof workers critical to the continuity of business, the majority of whom still live in Amsterdam where Wertheimer is preparing to relocate.
VanMoof founders Ties and Taco Carlier, who did have an advisory role early on, are no longer actively involved with the company. Wertheimer and Fry are exceedingly complimentary of the two brothers and what they were able to achieve, including making steady improvement in overall quality.
“To be honest, I like the SA5,” says Wertheimer, referring to the most recent S5 and A5 flagship e-bikes sold by VanMoof. “I mean I looked at the data — it’s a really reliable bike. It’s very solid. They did amazing work on that and it’s really, I think, what they were aiming for. In terms of timing, they got unlucky.”
“In 20 years time, when the history of VanMoof is being written, I hope that the brothers get the credit they deserve,” adds Fry.
Still, with hindsight, it’s clear that while the Carlier brothers showed great skill at launching something from scratch, they were ill-equipped to steer VanMoof through a pandemic and global economic downturn that caused cheap investor capital to dry up. “Entrepreneurs take ridiculous risks, they’re inspirational — but they’re often not good at operating,” concedes Fry. “In so many cases it then gets handed on to people like me who would never ever do the first piece, because that’s not our thing. But we can do the second piece.”
Parts and service centers are coming soon
“Keeping riders on the road is top priority,” says Wertheimer, not once, but five times during our two-plus hours together. And that means two things: the availability of spare parts and the launch of a new network of retailers — aka, certified bike shops — that can also service VanMoof e-bikes.
So, in Q1, and starting sooner rather than later, VanMoof will be launching a new parts and retailer network with an initial emphasis on meeting the majority of riders where they live. That means spinning-up a new network of third-party certified bike shops located in big cities across the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK, initially.
“We are looking at improving some key parts and components that needed to be improved, not only just from a reliability perspective, but also from the standpoint of mechanics,” says Wertheimer. The team is focused on making VanMoof e-bikes easier to service in order to avoid the long wait times that have historically plagued VanMoof riders. Wertheimer says the goal is, “to make sure that a workshop can fix your bike in 20 minutes, not three hours.”
The majority of VanMoof e-bikes on the road are S3 and X3 models, so those parts are the priority. But VanMoof’s bikes are made from hundreds of custom parts. “I think there are 400 SKUs,” says Wertheimer. “We’re focusing on the most important ones, about 20 to 30. And then we’re going to ramp up progressively on the rest.” VanMoof batteries and e-shifters are on that priority list, as the company continues to push out firmware updates to fix any known bugs.
Parts will only be available via the new retailer network for the foreseeable future. And while existing VanMoof e-bike warranties have gone poof with the bankruptcy, Wertheimer says “we’re going to supply those parts at preferential rates to retailers,” and launch its own warranty program at the same time. But if you want your VanMoof e-bike serviced, you have to go to one of the certified bike shops, assuming one exists close by, which can then analyze the problem and recommend a solution. DIY solutions might come later.
“We do not want to be in servicing anymore,” says Wertheimer. “I think they tried with a lot of great intentions, but it is too difficult to do it for yourself.”
What’s next for e-bikes?
Once the parts are available through a properly trained network of local bike shops, VanMoof plans to again start selling e-bikes from its existing catalog. SX3 models will not be sold, but SA5s seem likely — Wertheimer would not commit to any models, though. Initially, new VanMoof e-bikes will only be available to buy from the new retailer network, but direct-to-consumer sales from the VanMoof website could return in areas where a local network of certified workshops exist. “We will not sell bikes in Timbuktu,” says Wertheimer.
Wertheimer and Fry don’t want to be tied down on a date for a return to e-bike sales, but they’re aiming for a Q2 restart in the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK, with more countries to follow.
As to what’s next, well, that’s where McLaren Applied could provide the secret sauce. Applied excels at gathering up lots of data from fast moving vehicles to fine tune performance and make them more efficient.
For example, if you’ve ever watched F1 on television then you’re already familiar with McLaren Applied’s ATLAS system (even if it’s “powered by AWS”) which is used to display and analyze data for each car. The data is collected by McLaren Applied’s ECU (Electronic Control Unit) which fine tunes motor control for both petrol and electric motors.
“How do you win in Formula 1 and win in motor racing? You win by efficiency,” says Fry. “The thing you get very good at is making things which are as light as possible, as small as possible, and as efficient as possible.”
“If you have very fine motor controls, you can do lots of things,” continues Fry. “Increase the range because you can use the battery power more efficiently, for example. But the other thing that car manufacturers are finding out is that if you have very fine motor control you can also tune the driving characteristics of the vehicle.” That’s a pretty high level response, but it does sound a bit like what Cowboy is doing with its Adaptive Power feature, if I had to guess at one possible outcome of this union.
Removable battery? “Looking into it!” he says with a hearty laugh.
Here’s what Wertheimer is willing to commit to in these early days: the boost button, the iconic frame styling, the integrated lights and cabling, UX/UI, and the kick lock anti-theft are all here to stay and should carry over to brand new VanMoof models in the future. Belt drive or chain? “We’re looking into it,” Wertheimer says with a wry smile. Removable battery? “Looking into it!” he says with a hearty laugh.
Before its bankruptcy, VanMoof estimated that its e-bikes were built from over 90 percent custom-designed parts. Wertheimer is clear that his desire for product differentiation will require the company to continue making custom parts. “Where we can make them in partnership with more off-the-shelf manufacturers, we will. But our failure rates are lower than some of the guys we could outsource to,” says Wertheimer, who has been obsessively analyzing VanMoof’s data.
Fry supports an avenue of intelligent customization as well in order to keep costs down. “I believe that in the bike industry, as it is in the car industry, you make unique what people care about,” he says. “Does someone care if it’s an off-the-self perfectly serviceable Shimano part if they can’t see it? Of course not, no one cares because it works. You’ve got to do both: you’ve got to keep the uniqueness that makes your product a VanMoof, and you have to find parts which people don’t care about. Otherwise you end up with something that’s frankly massively expensive to engineer and massively expensive for the consumer to buy.”
So, before Q2 is over, VanMoof expects to be shipping spare parts to a new network of retailers that can repair e-bikes and sell new ones — at least in priority countries where the bulk of VanMoof riders exist. The rollout will be methodical and controlled which means the company will be spending far more money than it’ll be taking in for most of 2024. “There won’t be any significant revenue until later next year,” says Fry.
VanMoof Series 1 scooter
Fry says that VanMoof’s unexpected bankruptcy accelerated Lavoie’s plans to branch out into e-bikes. This sudden refocusing on e-bikes is causing the retail launch of the original Lavoie Series 1 scooter to be pushed back about six months.
In fact, the Series 1 scooter, developed by Lavoie and McLaren Applied will be rebranded VanMoof, with plans to launch it just after VanMoof e-bikes go back on sale. The Series 1 was supposed to launch in November, but is now being reworked in new colors, materials, and finishes. The scooter is also adopting the VanMoof app and UX / UI for its built-in display. That work has pushed the retail target to sometime in Q2, ideally just after the VanMoof e-bikes go back on sale.
I was able to test ride an old engineering prototype of the Lavoie-branded Series 1. I’m not a scooter guy (they aren’t legal where I live) but I can understand the last-mile value proposition of a folding scooter that can be carried onto a train or bus for free, or loaded into the back of a car. The future of urban travel is multi-modal, and e-bikes and e-scooters will both have their place inside the VanMoof app.
The folding mechanism on the Series 1 was developed by McLaren Applied and it’s something to behold. First it obviates the need for a kickstand, and allows the scooter to quickly collapse into a rather compact and portable package. The Series 1 will also inherit VanMoof staples like turn-by-turn navigation and anti-theft tech.
Does this mean we can expect a folding VanMoof e-bike in the future? “I hope so one day, but it’s not something we’re actively discussing,” said Wertheimer.
A lot has been written about VanMoof’s demise, but I think time will prove those pieces to be premature.
Yes, the bankruptcy has been terrible for customers and employees and creditors. But it appears as though the trustees have done an admirable job of selecting a capable new steward to carry the company forward while preserving as many local jobs as possible.
We think we’ve got the makings of something that could be very successful
Yes, the founders aren’t there anymore, but they’ve been replaced by Wertheimer’s strong technical acumen (shared by his co-CEO), Fry’s adult oversight, McLaren Applied’s vast engineering resources, and Greybull’s money. “We really believe this has got potential,” says Fry. “We think we’ve got the makings of something that could be very successful.”
Yes, the company is no longer technically a Dutch e-bike company, but does that matter when 80 percent of the staff are ex-VanMoof and living in Europe’s bike capital of Amsterdam?
I’ve been covering VanMoof since 2016 — it was the first electric bike I ever rode back when e-bikes were still for the elderly. Maybe I drank the Kool-Aid in London last week, but if you ask for my gut reaction after meeting with Wertheimer and Fry, it’s this:
VanMoof is on the verge of a comeback, and, in a few years, could be better than ever.