As Boston Pedicab employees, John Pelkey and Eric Crouch couldn’t help but make a mental list of some of the flaws they noticed in the vehicles they pedaled: fiberglass elements that cracked easily, chains that slipped and ground as the gears changes, spokes that broke.
And, of course, the vehicles’ weight, about 175 pounds. At times, they hauled three adults, or two adults and two kids.
They turned their observations into a senior thesis at Wentworth Institute of Technology, building a prototype pedicab, and went on to win the top prize of $10,000 in the university’s first Accelerate Innovation and Entrepreneurship Challenge, held this summer.
Now Pelkey and Crouch are talking to owners of pedicab fleets about placing orders for their new vehicle, which doesn’t yet have a name.
I got to take it for a spin at Brigham Circle, with Crouch as my passenger. It was surprisingly maneuverable, and the gear-shifting was so smooth it was imperceptible. I was ready to start picking up fares and carting them around town — or at least around the big plaza in front of JP Licks.
“We realized that these are horrible products, and we thought we could do better,” Pelkey said. “We wanted to design a pedicab that was more reliable, easier to maintain, and lighter weight.”
They relied on their experiences and talked to mechanics at Boston Pedicab about what broke most often.
Instead of a fiberglass passenger area prone to cracking, they use fabric wrapped around lightweight aluminum tubing. They created a step to make it easier for passengers to get in and out and added legroom. They came up with a “lefty” hub for the rear wheels, intended to be supported only from one side and less likely to break.
“We designed this pedicab for Boston,” Pelkey said. “If a cab works year-round in Boston, it’ll work anywhere.”
But the size of pedicab fleets is still tiny, compared to taxis: New York allows 850 on the streets, and Boston just 35. A Colorado company, Main Street Pedicabs, dominates the North American market.
Crouch said the target price for the new pedicab is $4,700 — more expensive than many Main Street models.
But, he added, “with our reduction in maintenance costs, our cabs are projected to pay themselves off within two years of service.”
Pelkey and Crouch are considering whether to raise money to manufacture the cabs themselves or license out the design.
They earned their undergraduate degrees just last month.
Delightfully personalized online gift-giving
Every time I send a digital gift certificate — usually from Amazon — I’m filled with conflict. I always feel as if I’ve taken some crass shortcut by not sending a box with a bow, or even a paper gift certificate in the mail.
An MIT start-up called Delightfully is addressing that conflict. The three-person company wants to add a layer of personalization to digital gift-giving. They have raised about $100,000 in angel funding, led by Avid Technology founder Bill Warner.
“Gift-giving is intended to be about a relationship between two people — not a vendor and a recipient,” said cofounder Jason Shin,
an MBA student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “When we talk about digital gift-wrapping, what we mean is showing some effort, the same way you do when you do a great job wrapping a physical gift.”
Instead of simply opening an e-mail, the recipient of a gift sent with Delightfully might encounter photos chosen by the sender and have to move them around to find out what’s underneath. Shin also talked about developing video games — think Angry Birds with family members’ faces — that must be played before unlocking a gift, or augmented reality “scavenger hunts” that might require the recipient to take a mobile phone to a series of locations.
Shin says consumers may be willing to pay a premium to have their digital gifts delivered with a bit more panache — and it’s possible that e-commerce sites might be willing to license Delightfully’s technology.