Gary Boulanger interviews Robert Choi
Original Article: http://garyb.posterous.com/interview-volagis-robert-choi
Robert Choi is responsible for lighting your way, in a literal sense.
The Sonoma County, California resident developed, patented and sold the first LED bicycle light in the late 1980s, called the VistaLite. His first patent was an algorithm for a sonar fish finder using LCD technology, and after selling VistaLite to Bell Sports in 1994, Choi has developed popular products for Blackburn and CamelBak.
In mid 2010, Choi and former co-worker Barley Forsman created Volagi Cycles, introducing a high-performance ultra-endurance bicycle based on their shared passion for double centuries, brevets, and events like Paris-Brest-Paris.
Tell me a little bit about your background leading up to the development of the VistaLite.
I was always intrigued in how things worked. Early in my career I realized one of my aspirations was to create a product that would make a difference.
I was always interested in looking at technology and improving it. I studied engineering and my interest was on how to apply it and use scientific principles to enhance everyday life. I was intrigued and admired products that would apply simple science principles to make a difference in people’s everyday life. Although my early career work was in high technology, i.e. writing software and designing motherboards, the work seemed nebulous at best. I had the fortunate experience to work at a start-up development company and worked with marketing teams and realized that the product had to have a purpose and not just a tag line.
I believe that good design can be explained without many words and it can communicate the intent of the product by itself. Marketing became a truthful meter to tell the story of a good product, science and engineering became a catalyst to create a great business.
VistaLite was the byproduct of a series of misfortunes. I had a software engineering company, a computer consulting company and a product development company; of which were all failing ventures. In desperation I prototyped a blinking LED light hoping for investing funding. I applied for a government grant to start a business through the Benjamin Franklin Partnership, a program allowing seed funding innovations in Pennsylvania. Luckily, I was awarded a small grant and used it to apply it on a solid state LED safety light for bicycles and VistaLite was born.
At the time, I had no idea of the implications and the impact of the invention in the cycling community. It was the first time that cyclists had a safety light where they could feel safer riding on the road and street next to cars. VistaLite sold over a million lights in less than two years from inception.
How long did it take you to patent it? Was it your first patent?
Patenting a blinking LED light was not an easy endeavor. There had been blinking lights before, and I found out that at a certain frequency of 4-8 hzs resonates with the alpha brain waves.
Such a discovery was attention-getting, and a patent was granted after two years of effort. It happened that only a solid state LED technology allowed this to work and was included in the technology patent. Two years before VistaLite, my first patent was an algorithm for a sonar fish finder using LCD technology.
When did you get serious about cycling?
After inventing VistaLite and forming the company, I was designing and making a front headlight for mountain biking. At the time mountain biking was becoming more popular so I sponsored a team where Floyd Landis was one of the athletes. I started riding with them and they were so good I realized I was not near their caliber, this encouraged me to get better.
I loved mountain biking, doing night rides and testing the lights. I would go at night and ride on my own and got hooked with the cycling sport.
Who worked with you at VistaLite, and when was the company sold to Bell Sports? Can you tell me how much it sold for?
I hired an engineer from Armstrong Building supplies, Kwai Kong who eventually became the president of Bell Sports. I also hired my sisters, Shirley Choi in charge of sales and my other sister, Cathy Choi designing graphics. VistaLite was the first company who utilized all post-consumer corrugated in the cycling industry.
I sold VistaLite to Bell Sports for $2.5 million in 1994, mostly using the money to pay the debtors. At Bell Sports I became the head of marketing and product development for Blackburn, Rhode Gear and VistaLite.
What were some of the products you designed at Bell?
At Bell Sports, once again I helped create some break-though products, the world’s first real mountain frame pump, the Mammoth, and included the HydraPak which led me to CamelBak.
You worked at CamelBak for 10 years; what did you design for them?
I was head of products and worked closely with Barley Forsman, my current business partner at Volagi Cycles. We developed many break-through products including the Big Mouth Reservoirs, the HydroLock, the Big Bite Valve, and our final work was developing a Better Bottle for a previously known "Unbottle" company.
We were integral in pioneering a hydration system for the US military, which became a bigger business for CamelBak than the recreational market at that time.
How did you meet Barley?
While I worked at Bell Sports, Barley sent his resume looking for an internship during the summer of 1998. He insisted by calling me every week asking for an opening, after a while I hired him so that he would stop calling me. I gave him an esoteric project which to my surprise it was so well done that we decided to pursue the design into a product.
When I left Bell Sports to head R&D at CamelBak, Barley was the first designer I hired and the rest is history since we've work together ever since.
You have a passion for endurance cycling. At 50, how do you keep your body limber enough for all that saddle time?
My passion for cycling parallels my passion in business. I found out I was good in endurance cycling by applying the same dedication that I found to be successful in business. The simplicity of it has to do with hard work, preparation, being smart and having the fortitude to overcome obstacles.
Long distance endurance cycling is a metaphor in life and business. The virtues of "never give up" attitude in endurance cycling goes with the motto of our company at Volagi, by endurance and fortitude you discover new abilities that you didn’t know you had. You cannot quit upon the first challenge that comes upon you, the passion gives you the drive and the drive gives you the courage to overcome and solve problems and you grow as a person along the way.
Tell me how the concept for Volagi evolved.
I came to the realization that it was difficult to make a difference working at a big company. Barley and I thought about starting a company but we didn’t have the right idea. We thought it would be accessories but not an actual bike! We had an epiphany: what if we design a bike tailored made for the long distance cyclist? People just like us, who enjoy riding our bike, enjoy the challenges, and try to defy the boundaries of our own capabilities.
The other part was that bike companies were designing bikes for professional racers and marketing the same bike to the “endurance” cyclists. It was the same bike, except with a taller head tube and a longer wheelbase.
Designing and engineering a somewhat radical bicycle is quite a different than lights and hydration systems. How long did it take to develop the first Volagi prototype?
After giving up our day jobs and income in mid 2010, we decided we had to test the concept at the Interbike show in September 2010, and realized we only had six months to design a rideable prototype. We had the first sample arrive four days before the show, and we rode the bike all weekend long so that we could say that we actually rode the bike we were selling!
During our first ride, we knew we had something very special and different than what had been done in the performance bike market.
What has been the initial rider feedback?
Overwhelming! We’re getting our first samples to our press reviewers this week. Without exception, every person who has taken the bike for an extended ride has come back with the aspiration to buy one. We’ve had the most success when dealers actually ride the bike. Our patented pending LongBow Flex has given a new meaning to the endurance bike category. We just offer the bike to cyclists to ride and the bike sells itself. The same principle I learned early in my career holds true again: create something different and useful, and the public will accept it.
When will Volagi production be available?
We’re working hard to have bikes available May 25th, 2011. Some of the first shops to receive shipments will be River City Cycles in Portland, OR, Montlake Bike Shop in Seattle, WA, and to mention a few in California: Calistoga Bicycle Shop, Bicycle Trip in Santa Cruz, and the Trek Store of Santa Rosa.