#HumansofMaRS: The wild ride to build the Vanhawks Valour

#HumansofMaRS: The wild ride to build the Vanhawks Valour
Sohaib Zahid, co-founder and CEO of smartbike venture Vanhawks

For someone peddling a smooth ride, the path to success has been wild at every turn for Sohaib Zahid, co-founder and CEO of smartbike venture Vanhawks. Starting right from the company’s launch back in 2013, it’s been an uphill climb to get his signature bike, the Valour, out of his imagination and onto the road.

From floods that destroyed his first prototypes in his Pakistan-based factory to VCs who nixed his idea from the start and landlords that threatened to shut down his home-based workshop, it seemed many times like his dream bike would never fly. But he and his co-founders persisted, and the very first bike was finally shipped to a customer just last month.

Throughout the process, Zahid and his co-founders remained convinced their bike was a game-changer. “We actually managed to sell around 100 bikes without even having a bike! We only had a show model that you couldn’t actually ride because it would have fallen apart, with no electronics or anything working on it. But people bought it. I guess I was a good salesperson!”

Having dropped out of medical school to pursue his dream, Zahid already has plans to take the Valour beyond the traditional realm of cycling. “What the Internet was to the newspaper, we want to be for bikes, but instead of changing the way people access information, we want to completely change the experience of riding a bike.”

Featuring a proprietary carbon fibre frame and software that tracks performance and safety as you ride, the bike is a tech lover’s dream. Its routing engine provides basic information about road conditions such as the location of pot holes and upcoming congested routes, and a blind spot sensor gives riders a sixth sense, alerting them to traffic approaching from behind.

It’s this suite of high-tech features that creates the “experience” Zahid is selling. “We’re the Apple of bikes,” he says. “And our long-term goal is to be not just a bike company, but a mobility company that enhances the commute as a whole. We don’t just want to move faster, but to move, period. If we decongest our city and take the burden off other modes of transport, we would reduce our carbon footprint, enjoy driving more and provide a sustainable mode of getting from point A to B in urban areas. Whether it’s through mobility analytics or our routing engine, we want to convince more people to look at a bike as a vehicle rather than just a leisurely mode of transport.”

Despite the many VCs who told Zahid that customers would never pay $2000 for a bike, it seems that he and his co-founders have hit a nerve. In 2014, cyclists around the world donated $820,000 to the Vanhawks Kickstarter campaign, the highest-funded campaign in Canada at the time.

That campaign allowed them to build the team, so they could make an actual product. They hired about 20 staff, including a chief of design, a technology and engineering team, and some supply workers to build a concept pre-alpha prototype. That milestone enabled them to raise a $1.6 million round in Canada this past March.

Things have moved fast since then. They’re now at $1.4 million in sales and shipping to 42 countries. They have the largest WiFi open hotspot access in the world, with 17 million hotspots that Valour will connect to automatically. And they have a network of 24 partners to service and sell their bikes globally.

This success has certainly bolstered Zahid’s drive. “When I started, I didn’t think I would win at this game because I didn’t understand the business of being an entrepreneur. it took a while, but I’m more confident today than I was at the beginning. If there’s a team to build the next generation of bikes it’s right here at Vanhawks.”

#HumansofMaRS is a regular series celebrating the startups MaRS works with. Meet other #HumansofMaRS in our Flickr Album. To read more about the high-impact companies we work with, our programs and key successes, read our report: Place Matters