Ninebot made Segway cool
THE TESTERS zip past boxes of desiccants, packing crates and mounds of small rubber wheels, wearing helmets and pads on their knees and elbows. They drive the latest batch of electric kick-scooters past the assembly lines and into a pen surrounded by protective nets and multicoloured bunting, over speed bumps and cobblestones, down steps and up ramps. One rider tests around 450 e-scooters a day.
Once each has clocked up 1km doing laps of the 1,200-worker factory in Changzhou, a city in Jiangsu province, they are shipped. On a recent visit three models, each with small customisations, rolled off conveyor belts. One was for Xiaomi, a domestic maker of smartphones and gadgets. The two others were for Bird, an American app-based rental service for scooters which was valued in June at $2bn; and Grin, a new scooter-sharing startup in Mexico. Soon production will begin on a similar fleet for SEAT, a Spanish car company.
Ninebot, which owns the factory, claims to have made over nine-tenths of the e-scooters now gliding through American cities. These scooters carry sleek designs with bright colours (green for Lime, orange for Spin, two other thriving firms) and minimalist four-letter names (Goat and Skip). But thanks to Ninebot, most also bear an older brand on their handlebars—“powered by Segway”.
Set up in 1999, Segway invented the over-engineered self-balancing scooter of the same name. It languished under its initial owners (one of whom died after riding the two-wheeler off a cliff). But Segway has been rallying under the direction of Ninebot, which acquired it in April 2015 for an undisclosed sum—shortly after Segway sued it for patent infringement.
It took Segway a decade to hit its initial 13-month target to sell 100,000 units of its original two-wheeler. In 2018, just three years into production, Segway-Ninebot will sell 1m scooters, up from sales of 600,000 last year. Ninebot’s factory in Changzhou builds over 5,000 scooters a day. The firm’s backers, which include Xiaomi, valued it at $1.5bn in its latest funding round.
At its headquarters in the tech hub of Zhongguancun in Beijing, scooters are propped up against desks and helmets are strewn about. Still, Gao Lufeng, its chief executive, says the booming scooter-sharing business is only “a fraction” of Ninebot’s work. Its scooters account for one-fifth of its total revenue, almost all of which comes from its range of personal transporters, which include self-balancing unicycles and e-skates, using Segway-Ninebot’s balancing technology.
Mr Gao has especially high hopes for delivery businesses. In five years’ time he wants unmanned delivery vehicles called Loomo, currently being trialled by its robotics arm with Meituan-Dianping, an online-services giant, to account for over half of Ninebot’s total revenue. Using artificial intelligence Loomo can wheel goods from the gate of a compound into lifts then up to office doors, and, as costs come down, could take them straight to workers’ desks, says Mr Gao.
The new venture gives a sense of Ninebot’s ambition. It launched its first scooters within months of buying Segway, but the idea was older. Although Ninebot insists it developed its own self-balancing technology before the merger, Segway brought with it over 400 patents. Importantly, the acquisition let Ninebot drive its cheaper, sleeker products into an American market from which Segway had hoped to bar it. “Segway is like Lamborghini,” says Mr Gao, “and Ninebot is like Volkswagen”, the owner of the luxury carmaker.
The Segway brand has helped Ninebot expand beyond America, too. It expects competition in the scooter-rental business to heat up next year, as the likes of Bird and Lime battle with local contenders in Europe and elsewhere. Spin (bought this month by Ford for $100m) and Lime say they will design and build their own scooters, though Ninebot doubts they will match its production costs in the near future. Mr Gao thinks electric scooters may “disrupt even the old bicycle, because they appeal to our lazy nature”. Ninebot, at least, will not be standing still.