Henry Chong standing with the LIFE-Bike. All photos courtesy of Mary Chong
Henry Chong finds himself visiting the CN Tower for the first time in decades. He and 100 other entrepreneurs are here for the inaugural Elevator World Tour, an event that sees local startups given the length of an elevator ride up the CN Tower, or, about one minute, to pitch a panel of judges on their business idea. I’m introduced to Chong by a mutual acquaintance, and almost immediately I realize that he is different from the other entrepreneurs I’ve met wandering around the CN Tower concourse. Revelo is not his sixth company, it’s his first. In other words, he is new to this, and it shows in the green-eyed optimism that radiates from almost fibre of his being. There’s also a thoughtfulness in his answers and musings that is absent in some other entrepreneurs I’ve talked to.
After decades spent working for IBM, Chong decided to take early retirement at the age of 46 and do something he has always wanted to do: design. So he enrolled in the Ontario College of Art and Design’s Industrial Design program and pursued his dream. For his thesis project, he designed the first iteration of the LIFE-Bike, an innovative e-bike, and with the help of his family, the Imagination Catalyst accelerator at OCADU and a host of other people and organizations, Chong has spent the past two years tirelessly working on getting his invention to market.
What exactly is an e-bike, however? According to Chong, an e-bike is legally defined by three elements: it cannot have a power generation unit that produces an excess of 500 watts, it must not go faster than 32 kilometres per hour, and, perhaps most importantly, an e-bike must include some kind of pedalling system. The typical interpretation of what legally constitutes an e-bike has lead to the proliferation of these kind of wimpy electric scooters with haphazardly placed pedals. One look at the LIFE-Bike, however, and you realize that most traditional e-bike manufactures have been emphasizing all the wrong elements. The LIFE-Bike is more akin to a bike than scooter, and it’s folding frame makes it easy to store. Although it currently weighs 18 kilograms, Chong’s goal is to make the LIFE-Bike weighs 15 kilograms when it launches later this year. So, unlike it’s predecessors, the LIFE-Bike is compact and light enough to be stored in a condo or apartment, making it ideal for inner-city life.
Henry with Sunil Sharma of Extreme Startups, waiting to find out when he gets to pitch
Of course, like with any new idea, the challenge is getting people to forget about whatever preconceived notions they have of the product and actually try it. One of Chong’s former classmates, a person he describes as a “mucho guy that repels down buildings for Greenpeace,” told him, “you will never get laid riding one of these.” Others might not have might used those exact words, but they nonetheless shared the sentiment; even his thesis advisor thought the bike was too weird looking. However, according to Chong, as soon anyone gets on his e-bike and actually goes for a ride, they begin to love it. In fact, the Greenpeace activist that once thought the LIFE-Bike was a poor chick magnet has since become one of the bike’s biggest proponents, helping Chong with almost every test ride since and appearing in a series of promotional videos showcasing the product.
Speaking to Chong, I realize that LIFE-Bike is a carefully chosen, multifaceted name. I ask him whether he feels any younger working on it. He answers, “Yes, I do. I think it’s a reset. It gives you an idea that’s not calibrated in your age. For that reason, it’s not that you feel younger, it’s that I feel timeless.” I go to ask him if he hopes that his invention will make the world a better place for his children. He answers, “Absolutely.”
Chong has graciously agreed to be the last one to pitch so that I can accompany him on the elevator ride. As we quickly approach our turn, Chong says that he’s going to tune out for a bit while he mentally rehearses his pitch. Before doing so, he admits to me that he’s nervous about the upcoming experience–this is in stark contrast to the other entrepreneurs I’ve talked to at the event, the majority of whom tell me they’re excited to pitch. Chong goes on to tell me that his hope isn’t necessarily to win. Instead, he merely wants to share his idea with his peers and get some good press.
As the final minutes pass before we board the elevator, I get nervous for Chong. I wish the judges had the time and space to try out the bike; I wish they could get to know Henry like I’ve gotten to know him over the past couple of hours. Of course, the judges neither have the time nor space to take Chong’s invention for a ride. Moreover, they only have about a minute to get a sense of him as a person. According to Rory Olsen, one of the competition’s many judges, “You’re looking for the solution that has the legs to get to market. There’s very little time to judge the actual entrepreneur.” To be honest, it’s probably better that way–they’re here, after all, to judge whether his enterprise can be profitable.
Henry with sister Mary
Chong and I enter the elevator. It’s a tight fit with the bike, judges, and camera crew. As he wheels in his e-bike, one of the judges remarks, “Ah, you’ve brought a prop with you.” Chong starts his pitch. He tells the judges about the awards he’s won for his bike, and the burgeoning $200-billion worldwide market that will exist for e-bikes in 2016. And although visibly nervous, he successfully makes it through his pitch before his minute is up. The two judges, intrigued by some combination of his pitch and “prop,” ignore the aide that tells them that Chong’s minute is up. They proceed to ask him several questions about the bike, and one of the judges even picks up it without asking Chong’s permission to do so. After we exit the elevator, Chong complains that a dry throat made it difficult for him to work his way through the pitch. I realize that I’m at least partially to blame this, as he spent the better part of two hours answering my many questions.
After we talk about how he did, Chong and I make our way to the 360 Restaurant. We make it in time to hear the announcement of the seven finalists, each of whom is required to repeat their elevator pitch to the audience. A man reads out the names of the seven startups:
Chong, obviously shocked to hear his name among the final seven, sheepishly makes his way onto the stage. He’s even more visibly nervous than before, and, as a result, he has a slight stumble towards the end of his pitch, but otherwise manages to get through it in the allotted amount of time; as he’s making his way off the stage, he raises his invention to air, making sure that everyone can see it.
Afterwards, Philippe Telio, the event’s founder, tells the audience that they should each get an email from his personal address with instructions on how to vote for the ultimate winner. Eventually a winner is decided, and it’s Mejuri, an e-commerce platform that helps independent jewellers manufacture and sell their wares. Not the novel-like outcome I had hoped for, certainly, but a good choice nonetheless; the company’s co-founder, Noura Sakkijha, delivered her articulate pitch in record time with both confidence and poise. Sakkijha’s reward is a trip to Montreal for the festival’s main event in July where she will once again be asked to compete against hundreds of other entrepreneurs for a shot at an even bigger prize.
As for Chong, he doesn’t seem upset by the outcome. In fact, as I leave him for the night, I find him swamped by a group of curious onlookers, each asking him multiple questions about his creation: a result not unlike the one he had hoped for going into the night.
With the spectacle of the elevator pitches behind everyone, the heart of the event begins to reveal itself. With a bit of liquid courage, all the entrepreneurs present begin to mingle with one another, telling each other how they’re going to change the world. In a word, they’re having fun. However, tommorow it’s back to the grind for these men and women as they go about trying to make their dreams a reality.
Igor Bonifacic is a writer working for the Toronto Standard. You can follow him on twitter @igorbonifacic.