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Written by Mike Butcher

Review: Handsome and nippy, new VanMoof e-bikes could be the shape of cities to come

I have to admit, I was an e-bike virgin. Sure, I’d tried out Uber’s Jump bikes and similar e-bikes, but these are more like normal bikes “with a little extra help.” So when I was offered the chance to try out the new VanMoof S3, an e-bike that has literally been built from the ground up, I was excited at how different the experience might be.

Perhaps more significantly, I had a particular task in mind for it. In the current COVID-19 pandemic much has been made of cities being transformed into proverbial deserts, as traffic and pedestrians disappeared. Now, with many cities coming out of lockdown, governments have advised their citizens to go back to work, desperate to get their economies moving. And they are pushing cycling as a viable alternative to public transport, where the virus is more likely to be found. So what better time would there be to try out an e-bike as a viable alternative to commuting to and from the suburbs of a large city?

Indeed, the U.K. government has unleashed a £2 billion package to create a new era for cycling and walking.

In the U.S., New York City recently committed to adding protected bike lanes across Manhattan and Brooklyn. Berlin is extending some of its already extensive bike lanes. And Milan will introduce a five-mile cycle lane to cut car use after the lockdown. New York City has reported a 50% increase in cycling compared to this time last year, and cycling in Philadelphia has increased by more than 150% during the COVID-19 outbreak.

But much of the official advice is to avoid public transport where possible, due to the near-impossibility of social distancing.

So with cycling a viable option in many cities, but distance still the old adversary, many consumers are looking to e-bikes as a way to kill two birds with one stone. Not only can you socially distance, but you can also take the bikes on much longer commutes than is possible with traditional bikes and, dare I say it, traditional legs.

With London still on lockdown recently, I decided to try out the new VanMoof S3 on the deserted streets, cycling from the deep London suburbs right into the empty center of the city.

The bike
For starters, it’s worth saying that the VanMoof S3 is a handsome bike. As a significant upgrade to its previous version, it is similar in its good looks, but what’s “under the bonnet” is what counts.

The S3 is a full-size bike with 28-inch wheels. It has a 24-inch wheeled sister called the X3, which is more compact and it therefore technically “nippier” in the city; however, I found the S3 perfectly suited to London. In fact, its “chopper-like” handling felt very reassuring over London’s bumpy and often unkempt roads.

The S3 and X3 both cost $2,000. Both also come with four-speed automatic shifting and hydraulic brakes. They are cheaper than the previous S2 and X2 models, which only had two-speed automatic shifting and cable brakes. Although the frame construction is unchanged, VanMoof says it has achieved savings by making production more efficient. The bikes weigh about 41 pounds, which is very acceptable for an electric bike. You can get front and rear racks as accessories for pannier bags, cargo boxes or a child seat.

The range per charge varies somewhere between 37 and 93 miles, depending which power level you select on the smartphone app. Level 0 turns off the electric pedal assist, leaving the bike quite heavy to pedal, and level 4 boosts the bike continuously. For my jaunt around London I used Level 4 all the time and managed to get a full, and quick, 45 miles out of the bike without even breaking a sweat, showing that even the heaviest users would be well served by the S3. If you are concerned about your battery charge level, this is displayed on top of the cross-bar, which also shows you current speed. It takes four hours to charge the bike to 100%, but just under an hour and a half to get to 50%.

The VanMoof is driven by a front hub motor and in “European mode” gives a continuous power of 250 watts. But to get more speed you can select the U.S. setting, tick a disclaimer and get 350W of continuous power, with peak power-hitting 500W via the Boost button on the right handlebar. That means you can take off at the lights very easily and quickly get ahead of the traffic, while the normal pedal assist will suffice for most needs. The Boost is particularly useful when going up hills, which the S3 seemed to devour on my ride through London.

Thieves will find this bike frustrating. The rear brake locks when you tap the button near the rear hub. All parts apart from the handlebars and seat post require a special tool to undo. The headlight and taillight are integrated into the frame. The tires are large and puncture-resistant and covered by large metal fenders with integrated mud flaps.

If a thief tries to wheel away the bike when it’s locked it will immobilize the rear wheel and belt out a loud alarm. If the thief persists, a more shrill alarm will sound, the headlights and taillight will flash, a notification will appear on your phone and the bike will refuse to work at all. Only VanMoof can then re-enable the bike using the bike’s built-in cellular data connection and Bluetooth. The bike will sense the phone in your pocket as you approach, allowing you to unlock the rear wheel — and the app always shows the bike’s current location.

VanMoof’s three-year, $340 “Peace of Mind” plan means that it guarantees to find or replace your bike if it gets stolen (assuming it was locked). In the meantime, you will get a bike on loan, although this plan is only available in cities where VanMoof has a presence.

One possible drawback of having the battery welded inside the bike is the necessity of needing to be near a power outlet every time it needs charging. This drawback will be limited to those who are unable to take the bike up to an apartment, or fear for the bike’s safety if it has to charge outside a house. Yes, the hard-wired battery might well be a security “feature,” but this may well be a deal breaker for many, forcing them to look to other bikes which have removable batteries. That said, you are likely to pay more for the bike in the first place.

The journey
As for my test around London, to put the bike through its paces I cycled from the deep suburbs right into the heart of the West End. I’d like to say people asked me about the bike, but no one was around to impress! At the time of the test, London was in full lockdown and eerily quiet.

Hitting the Boost button felt like the “Punch it, Chewy” moment form Star Wars, as I pulled away from traffic. I unwittingly rode the bike at Level 4 all the way there and back, which meant that after about four hours and about 45 miles I ran out of charge on the last mile home. However, this was not a problem as I could cycle the last leg, despite it being a bit of a strain without any electrical assistance. Level 2 or 3 would probably have been a more ideal combination of power and range.

When you drive a Tesla you drive differently, zipping in and out of lanes. Similarly with this bike I realized I could overtake “normal” bikes effortlessly. Overall I’d say this is an excellent electric bike.

VanMoof, which was was founded in 2009 by Taco and Ties Carlier, two Dutch brothers, has now attracted a €12.5 million ($13.5 million) investment from London VC Balderton Capital and SINBON Electronics, the Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer which is VanMoof’s bike assembly partner. So expect to see this company ramp up its presence across Europe and the U.S.

Admittedly they are not the only VC-backed e-bike on the market. Brussels-based Cowboy is an e-bike startup which only appeared in 2017 but which has since raised $19.5 million from Tiger Global and London’s Index Ventures.

It looks like the e-bike wars have begun, they have.

[All pictures by Mike Butcher]

14 VCs discuss COVID-19 and London’s future as a tech hub

The UK has created 63 tech unicorns in the past decade (according to Dealroom), and it almost goes without saying that the vast majority of those companies were based out of London, the country’s largest tech hub.

Famously, London’s DeepMind, an AI startup, was acquired by Google in 2014 for $500 million, but it has resolutely refused to move to Silicon Valley; founder Demis Hassabis says the city’s diversity of talent meant the powerhouse needed to stay put.

London has produced fintech upstarts like Revolut, Monzo and Starling and attracted early Skype team members who went on to create TransferWise. In 2019, London’s startups received $9.7 billion in venture capital funding, more than Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and Madrid combined.

Furthermore, last year Pitchbook found that up to $4.4 billion worth of deals had involved at least one U.S.-based investor, with London receiving over $12.5 billion from American investors in the previous five years – almost twice as much as Berlin (on $6.5 billion of investment from U.S. VC firms).

Brexit uncertainty may impact startups’ ability to recruit and sale, and the UK government’s points-based system for immigration is unlikely to satisfy the industry’s voracious appetite for talent. But London is a tech supertanker that other European cities are unlikely to be able to match any time soon, Brexit or no Brexit.

But in the era of COVID-19, will major hubs like London still be able to attract future tech unicorns, and will these be in the same sectors as before? Will geography be replaced by mere time zones?

We surveyed many of London’s top VCs to get their insights. Here’s who we heard from:

  • Ruth Foxe-Blader, partner, Anthemis Capital
  • Yana Abramova, partner, Pretiosum Capital
  • Leila Zegna, co-founding partner, Kindred Capital
  • Rob Moffat, partner, Balderton Capital
  • Nic Brisbourne, managing partner, Forward Partners
  • Sean Seton-Rogers, general partner, PROfounders Capital
  • Simon Murdoch, managing partner, Episode 1 Ventures
  • Nenad Marovac, founder and managing partner, DN Capital
  • Andrei Brasoveanu, partner, Accel Partners
  • Jan Lynn-Matern, founder and partner, Emerge Education
  • Rob Kniaz, founding partner, Hoxton Ventures
  • Harry Briggs, partner, OMERS Ventures
  • Hussein Kanji, partner, Hoxton Ventures
  • Eileen Burbidge, partner, Passion Capital

Ruth Foxe-Blader, Anthemis Capital

How much is local investing even a focus for you now? If you are investing remotely in general now, are you filtering for local founders?

Neither our investment thesis, nor our geographic focus has changed: we are a global investor, focused on the US, UK and Europe. We are filtering, even more, for the best founders, as geography feels less important in lockdown.

From that, what do you expect to happen to the startup climate in London longer term, with the shift to more remote work (post COVID-19), possibly from more remote areas. Will London stay a tech hub or will the ecosystem become more dispersed across the country?

As a global financial hub with substantial infrastructure (including capital) designed to support emerging technology, London will remain a critical node in the fintech ecosystem.

Long-term, do you expect to be more or less locally focused, especially in light of COVID-19 or in other ways?

We’re anticipating a pretty substantial change to working norms, at least over the near term (6-12 months). The long-term impact is likely to level the playing field for great founders operating outside of established tech hubs. Remote assessment of companies, while challenging, has the potential to create more equitable investment practices.

From that, what do you expect to happen to the startup climate in London longer term, with the shift to more remote work (post COVID-19), possibly from more remote areas. Will London stay a tech hub or will the ecosystem become more dispersed across the country?

As a global financial hub with substantial infrastructure (including capital) designed to support emerging technology, London will remain a critical node in the fintech ecosystem.

Will there be tech hubs post-COVID-19? What is a tech hub now, by your definition?

To the extent that culture, regulation and capital play a large role in favoring certain types of economic activity, I expect existing tech hubs to remain important bastions of innovation. That said, I think we will see the rise of complementary tech hubs, as well as teams “in the middle of nowhere” emboldened to start great companies.

Are there particular industry sectors that you expect to do uniquely well or poorly, locally?

Given the proximity to the City and the heritage in financial technology innovation, the London tech ecosystem will continue to produce great fintech and insurtech companies.

Berlin’s Cavalry Ventures closes €80M, backed by DACH founders and EIF

Cavalry Ventures, the Berlin-based early-stage venture fund which was the lead inceptor into BRYTER, has closed its second fund of €80M, more than 3.5x the size of its maiden fund.

Geared somewhat like a large Angel syndicate, Cavalry’s LPs tend to be active founders and other LPs in early-stage funds in the DACH region, and the fund is best known for its focus on key SaaS and B2B infrastructure startups such as those in HR, sales, PR, fundraising, legal and internationalization.

In a statement Stefan Walter, managing partner at Cavalry, said: “Our mantra has always been ‘what’s best for the startup?’. If that is staying on the sidelines and letting you as a founder do your job, that’s what we’re going to do. But if you request our support, you can count on us to be there – any time of the day.”

Typically, Cavalry invests alongside angels, both external and from within its network.

Among these angels are Martin Henk (Pipedrive), Nico Rosberg (former F1 World Champion), Viktoriya Tigipko (TA Ventures), Myke Naef (Doodle), Emmanuel Thomassin (Delivery Hero), Gero Decker (Signavio), Joshua Cornelius & Mehmet Yilmaz (Freeletics), Tobias Balling (Blinkist) and Felix Jahn (Rocket Internet, McMakler).

The Cavalry II fund is the partnership’s first vintage with institutional funds including the European Investment Fund .

Cavalry was launched by Rouven Dresselhaus, Claude Ritter and Stefan Walter in 2016 and has since invested in McMakler, Rekki and PlanRadar among others.