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Electronic wheel’s brain boasts smartphone savvy

Cambridge start-up hoping to attract urban tech lovers

The brains of the sophisticated Copenhagen Wheel are inside a sleek red housing that encircles the hub of a rear bicycle wheel. The 9.5-pound wheel will sell for under $1,000.

The brains of the sophisticated Copenhagen Wheel are inside a sleek red housing that encircles the hub of a rear bicycle wheel. The 9.5-pound wheel will sell for under $1,000.

Many cyclists need an extra boost, and that is what a Cambridge start-up is promising to give them.

Born inside a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Superpedestrian Inc. has built a new kind of smartphone-connected bike wheel that can store energy during a ride and dole it out from an electronic motor when necessary.

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“People cycle less if there’s a big hill or the distance is too large,” said Assaf Biderman, the company’s founder and a researcher at MIT. With his company’s high-tech wheel, he said, “you can throw it on your bike, download the app, and you are souped-up.”

The “Copenhagen Wheel” gets its power from pedaling and braking and stores that inside a wheel hub that contains an electric motor. Cyclists can use an app on their smartphones to program the motor to kick in during certain conditions, such as when it senses an incline.

The company has been working on its Copenhagen Wheel for about a year and on Monday announced an infusion of cash from one of Boston’s hottest venture firms. Spark Capital has invested $2.1 million in the young company, along with the backing of Tumblr founder David Karp. Spark was an early investor in Tumblr, a social media site that Yahoo Inc. acquired earlier this year for $1.1 billion.

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Superpedestrian will begin taking orders for its wheel at the end of November and expects to ship the first ones next spring. The 9.5-pound wheel will sell for under $1,000 and is designed to fit most bike frames. Initial orders will be for just the wheel, but the company expects to offer it on a complete bicycle setup.

Although many other so-called electronic-assist wheels sell for much less, and many motorized bikes are available on the market today, Superpedestrian has set out to create something more stylish and designed for urban cyclists who ride with smartphones.

The brains of its sophisticated wheel are inside a sleek red housing that encircles the hub of a rear bicycle wheel. A collection of electronic controls, sensors, a lithium battery, and a motor work together to assist cyclists when they are pedaling up hill. Essentially, said Biderman, “you just feel like a hill has flattened.”

But it is not just for helping during tough climbs. With a smartphone app, riders can also control the amount of resistance from the motorized rear wheel so it becomes even harder to pedal — if just riding the bike is not enough exercise.

Superpedestrian’s app will also display analytics based on rider metrics that are collected in the wheel’s sensors. It can even share that information with others via the Web. In that way, the wheel acts like wearable electronic devices such as the Fitbit that can record physical activity and broadcast it over social media.

The sensors within the hub of the Copenhagen Wheel can also gather environmental data, information about road conditions, and other external data. Superpedestrian has yet to announce the full range of features that will be available in the app. Those will be disclosed when it begins taking pre-orders for the wheels next month. The wheel can work without smartphones, too, for riders who do not want to use it with an app.

The Copenhagen moniker comes from the fact that the wheel was initially introduced at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Denmark. The idea, developed at MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, was not just to build a smart bicycle wheel, but to develop a technology that would encourage more people to ride bikes.

“It’s going to get people who don’t ride now to ride, and allow people who already ride to get a different experience from their bikes,” said Santo Politi, a general partner at Spark Capital.

The young company with about 10 employees will use the infusion of cash from Spark and Tumblr’s Karp to prepare the wheel for production. As that ramps up, the company said, the initial price of approximately $1,000 is expected to drop.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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