fb-pixelMIT startup gets more backing for smarter electric scooters - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
INNOVATION ECONOMY

MIT startup gets more backing for smarter electric scooters

Superpedestrian e-scooters are parked in the company’s space in Cambridge.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Cambridge electric-scooter startup Superpedestrian announced a major expansion Tuesday, as it brought in $125 million of new investment and unveiled an improved safety system to prevent riders from misbehaving.

Superpedestrian’s scooters, which can travel up to 15 miles per hour, are already available for rent under its “LINK” service in about 60 cities including Hartford, Cleveland, and Seattle in the United States and Madrid, Rome, and Vienna in Europe. And the company is competing to win permits in more cities this year including San Diego and Chicago.

The scooters, which don’t dock, are scattered around cities so riders can rent them from their phone and drop them at their destination. A typical trip of a mile or two costs a few dollars.

Advertisement



The company plans to use the new funding to introduce enhanced scooters in 25 cities this year, with a mix of existing markets and some new markets, founder and chief executive Assaf Biderman said in an interview.

“I think we hit the holy grail of micromobility, which is detecting when you’re on the sidewalk every time and stopping or slowing the vehicle,” Biderman said. “That’s what it needs ... to go huge.”

Dubbed “pedestrian defense,” the new safety system combines information from GPS with onboard sensors measuring variables such as speed and direction. AI software uses the combined data to calculate a scooter’s precise position, down to inches, so it can prevent riders from driving on a sidewalk or going the wrong way on a once-way street. The company said the system works even when GPS is momentarily blocked by tall buildings or inside a tunnel.

Investors in the new funding round include Jefferies, Antara Capital, the Sony Innovation Fund by Innovation Growth Ventures, and FM Capital. Prior investors Spark Capital, General Catalyst, and the Citi Impact Fund also participated. Biderman declined to disclose the company’s valuation.

Advertisement



The startup faces plenty of competition from larger Silicon Valley rivals such as Bird and Lime. But unlike its rivals, Superpedestrian has focused more on developing its own technology, in classic Boston startup fashion. The company was started nine years ago when Biderman, a founding member of the MIT Senseable City Lab, developed an add-on electric motor for bicycles called the Copenhagen Wheel before moving into scooter tech.

The latest model with the pedestrian defense feature remains a chunky design, more durable than most scooters from rival services. In some cities, the company’s newest scooters also have baskets to stash things and versions with seats for riders who aren’t able to ride standing up. A light on the handlebars glows green while riding but turns yellow or red if the safety system detects unsafe riding.

That impressed investors, like Gen Tsuchikawa, chief investment manager for the Sony Innovation Fund. The fund had been looking at the “micromobility” market for a long time “but were troubled by the broken scooters left on the street corner,” Tsuchikawa said in an e-mail. Superpedestrian “strongly addresses this issue, and can enjoy sustainable growth.”

The company demonstrated its newest tech via a ride in San Jose that was shared on live video. On a sunny and warm January day in California, a Superpedestrian employee riding the new scooter swerved up onto a sidewalk. The vehicle’s software squawked an alarm sound, flashed the handlebar light red, and quickly brought it to a stop.

Advertisement



The scooter can be programmed to react based on each city’s local rules — slowing a rider instead of halting if that’s preferred, for example. Riders can also be scored for safe versus unsafe scooter driving and could even be prevented from future rentals if a city established such a policy.

A few years ago, Biderman’s strategy was to design and build scooters and sell them to large rental services. That didn’t work out, but the idea to leverage the technology hasn’t gone away. Delivery companies like UPS are designing their own small electric cargo bike and could be in the market to license the pedestrian defense software.

“There are many applications for electric vehicle fleets across the board,” Biderman said. “Stay tuned.”

Superpedestrian’s competition is also bulking up. Bird, which is developing its own anti-sidewalk riding tech, merged with a special purpose acquisition company in November and raised $414 million, though its stock price has plummeted since the deal closed. The same month, Lime raised $523 million of debt and announced it wanted to go public in 2022.

In the long run, emphasizing the technology could prove a more successful strategy than emphasizing rapid growth and marketing, according to Horace Dediu, partner and chief market strategist at VC firm Relay Ventures. He compares the current e-scooter market to early wireless phones.

“We’re in that era of these new devices,” said Dediu, who has not invested in Superpedestrian. “We’re in that era where people are not quite sure what is the right form factor. They’re not even quite sure what they’re going to use them for. ... These things are going to be highly connected. And that’s what these guys from MIT figured out long ago.”

Advertisement



Despite all of the activity, don’t get excited for Boston to launch rental scooters. The Massachusetts Legislature has not changed laws on the books that regulate scooters as mopeds, deterring rental services.


Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him @ampressman.