Reinventing the Wheel: ParkENT Cycles & the Future of Bike Locks

According to the National Bike Registry and FBI, $350 million worth of bicycles are stolen in the United States each year. This roughly means that every 30 seconds, someone somewhere is losing a $400 bike.

PHOTO |  ParkENT Cycles

At this point, if you're like me, you're wondering what the heck everyone is doing with all of these stolen bikes. A bicycle doesn't seem like the most productive thing to steal and fence. But apparently, if you model it just like any other financial decision using a risk-reward curve, it turns out stealing a bike is essentially a risk-free crime — though you might go to hell for stealing little Timmy's bike, you won't go to jail. Unsurprisingly, as a result, bike theft has risen substantially in the last few years, and even thieves in London are getting mighty creative with ways to minimize their effort. Not that it's much effort to begin with; most bike locks can be cracked in under 30 seconds.

The issue is only made more noticeable by the fact that the number of bicyclists is growing rapidly: The number of trips made by bicycle in the U.S. more than doubled from 1.7 billion in 2001 to 4 billion in 2009. And though Atlanta hasn't always been the most friendly of cities to cyclists, between 2000 and 2009 the rate of bike commuting in Atlanta rose almost 400%

So okay. This is a problem, and traditional bike locks are apparently not the solution. Enter Thad Oviatt, local entrepreneur with a brand-new one-month Indiegogo campaign

I first met Thad two years ago at the 2013 SWEet Holiday Party at RiRa in Midtown ATL. We were standing in a crush fifteen fervent entrepreneurs deep around the back bar, and we got into a conversation while waiting our turn. He had a homemade business card and a big idea about bike locks. I got the business card and his enthusiasm, though maybe not the bike lock idea, and we both got our drinks and parted ways. 

Tell us more about the challenges you faced when you went all-in on ParkENT?
"After college I was working at a corporate job as a contract programmer, when the company downsized in 2011 and let me go. I was unable to get a new job due to the poor market. In 2012, I looked at a market similar to my startup idea, the bike share market, and it was growing like crazy. Thankfully, my family has been very helpful in encouraging me to pursue my dreams. ... I even partnered with my father to be my Executive VP of Sales. His experience has been invaluable. My sister is my contracted graphic designer. She has a degree in graphic design and has worked in the industry. My grandmother was my first investor and really helped jump-start the business."

Slight digression: Usually, not much happens after this type of conversation. I've connected up on social media with a lot of people who are excited about an idea, but being an actual entrepreneur is hard work. It's a lot of late nights and early mornings, deceptive triumphs and learning from failures, borrowing money and sinking your life's savings (not to mention your heart and soul) into something that you believe in so strongly that you cannot do anything else except grind away to try and make it work. It is not glamorous, or easy, or (for the most part) luck. Most people, they have an idea, but they also have things that get in the way. I get that; life happens. Life is expensive: It devours time and money. You have to make serious sacrifices somewhere, as there's never enough of those to go around. Because of this, maybe one person in a thousand will actually do something about their idea.

So let me tell you about Thad. 

Shortly after we met, I got hired by SalesLoft and started working at Atlanta Tech Village, and was attending startup events all the time. And who did I start running into but Thad? He'd gone all-in on his idea and was out pounding the pavement, networking with everyone, competing everywhere, and honing his pitch at every event he could find (including TechCrunch Disrupt New York 2015). He wasn't just chatting with people at the back of the room, he was putting himself  and his idea — at the very front. And he still is

What was the hardest part in launching your idea?
"The hardest part was getting the product built to a point where I could show it to the public. The product started out as a tack welded together sheet metal "Ugly Baby" from a scrap yard."

What was the best part?
"The best part was when the product was accepted as a sponsored project for the Georgia Tech Capstone Design program. The entire senior graduating engineering class signed up to work on the product. I was able to get the help of two groups of five engineers — normally you only get one group of five engineers. The groups helped to build the product out from the "Ugly Baby" stage and into a commercial prototype. The response from the students really told me that people wanted this product to be made."

Thad's concept, ParkENT Cycles, is a secure bicycle parking space that's "faster than walking, cheaper than parking." A patented electronic bicycle rack that locks the wheel and frame of bicycles, ParkENT "just wants to 'hug' your bike and keep it safe" (as Thad likes to say).

Okay, let's go back to that $400-bike-stolen-every-30-seconds problem. Because I know what you're saying right now — how is this different from all those bike racks and bike locks that you can open just by watching a YouTube video?

Great question. According to ParkENT, research has shown that all bike locks on the market can be broken in 30 seconds or less. And those regular bike racks don't actually lock up your bike; they're just a "hitching post" where you're counting on that super effective bike lock to secure your bike. (Want to go back and look at that picture of the sawed-through, taped-up bike racks in London again? Yeah. Me neither.)

And don't think that this is just some rough prototype, either. Though it started out in Thad's garage as some welded-together sheet metal, the ParkENT rack has come a long way: After four years, three design iterations, a patent and a substantial financial investment, it's a public-ready product. 

You've mentioned that this idea came to you after talking with a friend whose bike was stolen. Was this idea really just about helping out a friend, initially?
"ParkENT Cycles and the electronic bike rack really is about helping out a friend. I have known him from when we attended the same church and Boy Scouts, and I knew he really liked to ride his bike not just for fun, but even to the store. He was devastated when the second bike he purchased was stolen in the same week. These were $1,000 road bikes."

Are you personally a bike owner? Have you ever had a bike stolen?
"I am a bicycle owner. I mostly rode my bicycle in college to get to class. I almost had my bike stolen once; I walked up on the guy trying to break my combination lock. He saw me and ran."

How does the ParkENT rack work, exactly?

The rack is a 200-pound steel design with locking arms composed of a steel outer and inner sleeve containing an actuator. The center column contains a backup battery and the control system. To use, just push the bicycle into the rack, and once the system is activated, the rack extends a metal bar through the spokes of the wheel. There are bars in the reaching arms that extend down to stop the gated bars from swinging. This action creates a "locking bar" through the opening in the frame.

You can activate the rack, which is able to run off solar power with a backup battery, with a cell phone app, key card, or attached kiosk, and it secures 90% of the bicycles on the market. The rack is controlled with a Raspberry Pi 2, which communicates with your phone app via Bluetooth LE and with a RFID reader for key-card access. A subscription plan will be offered to users which will include an additional personal key card for rack access and insurance for your bicycle. 

The modular design allows for multiple rack deployment, and Thad sees them going onto campuses, into metropolitan areas, hotel resorts and in parks. They could also be used to rent out bikes at resorts or the beach as the electronic accessibility allows for reservation codes. Included in the sale will be maintenance and services contracts for the upkeep of the racks, and ParkENT will also collect data on rack usage to sell to municipalities to help grow more bikeable communities.

TechCrunch  Disrupt New York. PHOTO | ParkENT Cycles

TechCrunch Disrupt New York. PHOTO | ParkENT Cycles

Thad has already gotten interest from local universities and tech centers, as well as city governments and bike shops not only in the ATL metro area, but throughout Georgia. Not to mention the visibility from the pitch-offs and presentations he's been a part of (if you get a chance, you should ask him about his advice for TechCrunch Disrupt, he has excellent notes). So what's with the Indiegogo campaign? Well, the crowdfunding is for a pilot program because those same "interested parties" have said they want to see it working in public — basically, seeing is believing here. They want the bike rack to work, they just want someone else to try it out first. 

As a Midtown ATLien, I can attest that there are many, many students and residents who would love a reliable bike lock option — my feed is full of people whose bikes have been stolen. (Side note: Who steals a 6-year-old's princess bike?? C'mon, people!)

I don't currently own a bike, partially because I haven't any storage, and partially because what I'd like to do is use it to get to MARTA and then take that to work or other locations in the city. But taking bikes on public transit is a huge pain, so I've been extremely hopeful about ParkENT getting installed at various MARTA stations and allowing me to just park up the bike and walk onto the train. It would also be amazing to be able to lock up my bike safely near my house, at a restaurant, or near shops,  and know it will still be there when I get back. 

I've been waiting for years — literally — for Thad's idea to go live, and now it's almost here! So I encourage you to take a moment and donate to his crowdfunding campaign (shareable link: Follow him on Twitter and do some reTweeting. Get the word out to your hiking and biking friends. And help the man hug some bikes already!

Full disclosure: Yes, I've already put my money where my mouth is and sent some money to Thad's Indiegogo campaign. Every little bit helps. 

What's your advice to other entrepreneurs? Anything that you wish you'd known when you started?

  • Working on a startup from idea to product is an endurance run.
  • Learn what you cannot do and find someone who can do it. Make them your new best friend.
  • Trust your gut. If your gut is wrong then trust in someone else's gut whose is right.
  • Don't go at it alone! You cannot think of everything you'll have to do.
  • Make time for yourself. I know people that have pushed too hard and burned out.
  • Some of your best ideas may come from when you've been drinking. Mine did.
  • Never be afraid to "throw your name in the hat." My first ever three-minute pitch for the startup was to Daymond John of FUBU and ABC's Shark Tank. I got the opportunity all because I dropped my business card in a bucket at the door of the event.
  • Being honest in what you say and do will help you find people who will help you."
~ Thad Oviatt, Founder of ParkENT Cycles