In creating the Pocket Rocket, Sol Motors founder Manuel Meßmer followed a simple, yet fundamental design principle: form follows function. His journey first began in a search for an e-bike of his own, when Manuel was struck by the fact that designs for electric vehicles today are still using the antiquated, retro designs that were created for a completely different technology. Why rely on old designs, he thought, when we could envision something new? Innovative technology merits a fresh design, and the electric drive presents unique opportunities and challenges for industrial designers to grapple with. And so Manuel got to work.
What started as a passion project — with a design developed in his spare time and born out of a love for two-wheelers — has now transformed into the award-winning Pocket Rocket: a sleek, sexy “noped,” or no-pedals. Its contemporary and straightforward design lends itself to a higher quality performance, with a lightweight aluminum frame and lack of extraneous parts that could weigh the electric motorcycle down. At 55 kg, it has a range of 50 – 80 km (depending on the mode) and a top speed of 50 or 80 km/h (depending on the model).
The Pocket Rocket is compact, durable, easy to use and… well, beautiful to look at. To date, the noped has won the European Product Design Award, the German Design Award, and Gold in the Focus Open 2018. Suffice it to say that Manuel has stuck a cord with his fresh design, using simplicity and functionality as the basis to create a stunning urban commuter vehicle.
Based in Stuttgart, a city where Porsche and Mercedes have maintained a stronghold for four-wheeled combustion engines, the Pocket Rocket is a breath of fresh, emission-free air. Manuel sees their hometown as both an obstacle and an opportunity, giving Sol Motors the chance to develop the German market themselves. The company is still very young, and in the throes of business talks to grow the company, but all signs point towards a major success. As Sol Motors takes on these challenges, Manuel took some time out of his day to discuss the origins of the Pocket Rocket and what the future holds for him and his team.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your passion for bikes and motorcycles, and your personal background?
Yes, my background is in industrial design, I studied here in Stuttgart and in Zurich. I started with motorcycles when I was young: at 15, a teenager coming from the countryside where to visit France, to go to school, you have to drive, to take the bus for five or six kilometers. And when I was 15 I had my first contact with two-wheelers, besides bicycles, and after a while I had a lot of motorcycles. We tuned and built our own bicycles and motorcycles.
Here in Stuttgart I’m riding a bicycle as often as possible, and five years ago I was looking for a two-wheeler again, but I didn’t want to buy one with a combustion engine. The pollution is 100 times greater than a diesel car, for example. If you’re cycling, you experience the outcome of the combustion two-wheelers, and it’s not that nice to inhale. So I was looking for an electric one and five years ago most of them were some kind of cheap Vespa copies, with all of the retro elements. And the e-drive is a new technology, it’s a new way of driving, it’s also a new drive itself, and as a designer you could create completely another design. So my motivation was also to take the new engine, the e-drive, and to relate it to the design, you know, not just to copy the design of a combustion engine vehicle.
To make something new.
Yeah, I mean as a designer it is cool to have less components, to design new forms related to the components in the engine.
So you call the Pocket Rocket a “noped.” Can you explain that and what exactly makes it so different from a moped or an e-bike?
Yes, it’s quite difficult to describe the Pocket Rocket in a category. We have some problems with, for example, e-bike, pedelec, and moped, because pedelec is electric but still has pedals and moped also means motorized pedals. It’s also from the 50s or 60s, when the mopeds had pedals to kick-start the engine. So in slang we still say moped, also for a motorcycle, but in the meaning it’s not a moped because we don’t have any pedals. For sure the Pocket Rocket is a kind of e-bike, or electric motorcycle, but it was more about finding that category, and noped, or no pedals, is maybe the nearest description of the vehicle.
You need a new category…
Maybe, I mean it shouldn’t be arrogant, saying we have a new category or something, you can still say moped, but in the meaning it has no pedals. I mean it’s not a scooter, it’s not a cross bike, it’s maybe in a new category. But our focus is not to be arrogant or make a new category, it’s more to try to be clear in explaining our concept and product.
What was your inspiration for founding Sol Motors and creating the bike?
It was really for city use or for use in urban areas, which means that, for example, the components had to be safe in the frame, so they can’t get stolen easily, and that we eliminate all the parts that are not really necessary. Extra parts mean weight, and weight in electric mobility means driving distance. So it had to be light. It had to be compact, using only the components we really need in the beginning. And also durable, from the materials, because we don’t want to have parts which could break or get damaged easily. And it should be super easy to drive, so we just have two brakes and the gas throttle.
And it’s controlled with the app?
I’m curious, do you see any issues with that: like what if you don’t have data or battery on your phone? Does it need internet?
Yeah, yeah you’re right. I think it’s a side function that you could completely also control and protocol and get data from the bike with an app, but it will also have an analog speed meter and a normal key to start the vehicle. But we will also have a USB loader at the vehicle and we have another small 12 volt battery that’s not connected to the battery itself which is responsible for the engine — like a small backup battery to have the voltage on the vehicle even when the main battery is empty.
How are you securing investment and what’s your business model for the future?
Good question. We have the Indiegogo campaign running, but besides that we have a lot of requests for the vehicle itself from all over the world, which is really cool for us. We are also talking to investors that are knocking at our door, and potential producers, stuff like that. So in the beginning the main focus is now to get the product into series, into production. But for sure, the business case will become more and more clear. We have a lot of companies which are asking for vehicles for their fleet, for like urban commuting or commuting from A to B, so they will use it internally. We also have requests from some public sharing systems, but we have to figure it out because right now we are just focusing on getting the production ready.
How many pre-orders have you received?
Somewhere around 30 on Indiegogo, and then besides that we have hundreds: two or three hundred.
Great, and how many Pocket Rockets do you expect to sell?
We are still working with a partner on the business model, but yes I think it’s also a question of if you think regionally or globally. For sure we want to think globally, also markets like China, for sure America, India, South America, but our market is not really developed. We want to develop the market, you know, for those little electric commuters.
You mean here in Germany?
Yeah, for sure, but Germany is really a four-wheel thinking country. Stuttgart is hometown to Mercedes and Porsche and here we have the hardest mindset I think. Because, for example, Americans: they write me everyday, they want to buy it, they want to have it, they want to do a dealership, stuff like that. They are more open minded. I’m also thinking about a lot of panel discussions, and if you look to Asia, in the mega cities, the two-wheels — it doesn’t matter if it’s a bicycle or a motorcycle, but the first thing is to have two-wheels and not four because we will still have traffic jams if everybody is driving a Tesla or something. On two-wheelers you need less space, you are more flexible, and as you can see in the Asian cities they are all using two-wheelers. So I think we still have to develop and work on the mindset as well. So for sure, the market will be there but when… we will see. We will develop the market.
You develop and produce everything in Germany. About how big is your team?
I think in two weeks I will say something else from today, because we are currently having intensive business talks, with also some strategic partners. So currently we have three fixed employees and an open team with ten people, including freelancers, but we are growing. It’s not yet defined, because the talks are currently running about investments, partnerships, stuff like that.
You’ve won several awards, congratulations! What has the general public’s reception been like so far?
Overwhelmingly positive, that’s for sure. A lot of people are really surprised, I think they feel the freshness of our intention to design differently, and to relate it to the e-drive and to the function as well. There are some articles about the bike online and it’s really funny to read also the comments. But I think it’s quite a zeitgeist that there are a lot of skeptical people as well. Especially in Germany too, I mean yeah on HypeBeast or something they are more open minded, but on German blogs and articles they are more skeptical… But for me it doesn’t matter anymore how someone reacts, I’m just happy that people react to the design. It doesn’t matter if the reaction is, ‘Oh, I don’t like it’ or something, it’s okay: freedom of taste!
What have been your biggest obstacles so far?
I started five years ago with the design and the decision to go on to develop it. I’m self-employed, also doing a lot of freelance projects, developments, and it was always a side project. So, for sure, the biggest obstacle so far was to get the first prototype, the running prototype, to test it, like a proof of concept.
So you were doing that as a side project, as a passion project, and then you decided to just go for it?
Until now, or until a couple of weeks ago, it was still a side project, but now it’s professionalized. And it’s cool to get the positive responses, to get the attention, to get the requests.
Who do you think is your biggest competition in the market, for the Pocket Rocket, right now?
For sure it’s the Chinese import models, because the price competition is an obstacle — for people to feel confident with the price we must ask from the customer. We focus on sustainability and the way that product should last for a very long time. It should not be thrown away in two years or something – there will be upgrades and innovations which will follow now that we have the budget hopefully to develop the vehicle further. And with less components to focus on, we could focus more on, for example, battery and connectivity, stuff like that.
Last question: what do you envision for the future of Sol Motors and do you picture other products down the line?
As you can imagine, I am not focused on only two-wheelers, it’s the mobility itself, and even the energy as it’s related to mobility. So, where to get the energy, how to use the energy to get from A to B, etc.. So there will be hopefully a lot of other products coming up. There are concepts, there are variations, and of course still some two-wheelers, but also any other kind of transport logistics solutions.