If Robocop were assigned to bicycle patrol, this is what he would ride.
It’s called the Thoreau Tactical System. Built by 1854 Cycling Co., of Framingham, it’s a police data center on two wheels: a flat-panel touchscreen over the handlebars that displays maps or photos of a fugitive; integrated radios that feed voice communications directly to the officer’s helmet; body sensors that relay vital stats such as pulse and respiration.
An electric motor can carry an officer farther and faster than muscle power alone, and an infrared system locks the bike unless the officer is nearby.
The system sells for a whopping $10,000, but 1854 Cycling’s founder, Brandale Randolph, has a powerful ally to help his startup target police departments in the United States and around the world: Cambridge-based Draper, the electronics and defense institute best known for writing the software that guided the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
Also on the team are Empire Group, an engineering firm that designed the bicycle’s lightweight carbon-fiber frame; the Waltham company Boston Engineering, which designed the full-face radio helmet; and 99 Degrees, of Lawrence, a maker of high-tech clothing that monitors the wearer’s vital signs.
Their joint effort seems to be paying off: After displaying the Thoreau bike system at the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention in Chicago in October, Randolph received orders for about 600 bikes, he said, and interest from agencies for thousands more.
Up to now, Randolph’s three-year-old company has been run out of his garage, and it manufactured fewer than 300 bikes. He acknowledges the massive challenge he faces in ramping up to mass production. Randolph is in negotiations to purchase a factory in Hopkinton, with the aim of producing about 6,000 bikes a year.
Boston Police Commissioner William Gross wants to try 10 of the bikes on city streets in January, and hopes to get five bikes for use by Boston’s emergency medical technicians.
“I had a great briefing on the bicycles when I attended the IACP conference,” Gross said. “It’s a very sturdy and rugged bicycle I think can handle New England weather.”
Gross wants the bikes deployed in the Newmarket Square area near Boston Medical Center, around the area known as Methadone Mile because of the number of opioid addicts and other homeless people who have set up camp there.
“Our citywide bicycle units are out there every day,” Gross said. “They ride in all weather.”
Police are less threatening and more approachable when they’re on bikes, many police officials say. But the Thoreau bikes give officers the same kind of digital communications gear that’s currently available only in police cars.
“This is like going from a standard to an automatic,” Gross said.
Randolph was born in Louisiana and grew up in Southern California, where he won a scholarship to a prestigious private prep school and then earned an economics degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He worked as a writer for Warner Bros. in Los Angeles and then as a commodities broker. But after the company folded, Randolph moved with his wife, Angela, to Lubbock, Texas, where she was completing a doctorate at Texas Tech University. He founded a nonprofit group designed to find ways to help families break out of poverty.
“I found out that almost 51 percent of the households that were led by women who were below the poverty threshold — those women had criminal backgrounds,” Randolph said.
And three-quarters of those women had children under age 18.
Their criminal records made it tough for the women to get good jobs, locking them and their children into lives of poverty.
Randolph decided to break the poverty chain by starting a business that would hire former offenders. He considered craft brewing and coffee shops, but “there were so many already, and the overhead was ridiculous.” But then he learned that bicycle mechanics earned as much as $17 an hour. He wasn’t much of a bike rider, but was confident he could launch a business to build them.
In 2016, after his wife earned her degree and joined the faculty at Babson College in Wellesley, as an assistant professor of entrepreneurship, the couple moved to Framingham, where Randolph turned their garage into a factory.
He named the company 1854 Cycling after the famed rally on July 4, 1854, in Framingham by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, attended by renowned abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth. The police bike is named after another illustrious guest at the rally, the writer Henry David Thoreau.
From the start, Randolph knew he couldn’t compete on the low end with cheap bikes from China, so 1854 specialized in higher-priced rides for “soccer moms or these fashionista kinds of guys.” The company’s Craft bikes sold for $700, with a power-assisted version going for $3,200.
Funded by friends, family, and Randolph’s savings, 1854 managed a hand-to-mouth existence, selling about 290 bikes. But then came the Trump administration’s tariffs on goods from China. Far from benefitting this small manufacturing company, the tariffs threatened 1854’s survival by driving up the prices of vital Chinese-made bicycle parts.
“The tariffs basically killed our business,” Randolph said. “We basically saw a 60 to 63 percent price increase over the past three years.”
Randolph decided the consumer market was a dead end. But he had earned a slot at MassChallenge, the nonprofit business accelerator program, where he began working up his idea for a high-end police bike. And there he met Spencer Irvine, an engineer at Draper, which cosponsors MassChallenge.
“Our goal is to see our capabilities help out these small companies and get their technology fielded,” Irvine said.
He realized that Draper’s engineers could design the user interface for the bike’s computer system, using lessons they’d learned while designing similar systems for the US military.
“We’re taking an existing commercial off-the-shelf interface and tailoring it for this application,” Irvine said.
Draper also helped to arrange partnerships with 99 Degrees, Boston Engineering, and Empire Group. Together, they transformed the Thoreau from a high-tech bike to an integrated mobility and communications system; 1854 Cycling will now concentrate on making only the Thoreau Tactical System.
Randolph said the company will break even if it can sell 500 bikes a year.