ZaiBike is changing Singapore’s cycling culture with smart tech


The team, comprised of university students, is already making significant headway into building their bicycle sharing project in Singapore

Compared to the Netherlands and Taiwan, Singapore is lacking in adequate bicycle-friendly facilities. Not only is there a scarcity in cycling lanes, public bicycle kiosks are also almost non-existent unless you are at park by the beach.

Nine enterprising students from the Singapore University of Design and Technology are tackling these pain points with their startup ZaiBike.

Its mission is to create a vibrant cycling ecosystem by introducing a smart public bicycle incorporating features such as a smart locking and theft-proofing system and a GPS. It also allows users to rent reserve, or return the bicycle through their smartphones.

e27 spoke with ZaiBike Co-Founder and CEO Lee Jun Xiang to find out more about the startup.

Here are the edited excerpts:

Can you tell me more about the company?

ZaiBike is a brand incorporated under Zai Technologies. ZaiBike is focussed on enabling commuters to make short distance commutes in the most affordable, user friendly, and accessible way possible, building an active and social community around cycling. To achieve that, we want to introduce a new and innovative way to make bicycle sharing possible in Singapore.

Existing infrastructure is also already available for bicycles, and we see a gradual shift in policy from the Singapore government to make cycling a viable mode of commute in Singapore.

But due to the expensive real estate space and existing bicycle infrastructure in Singapore, we wanted to make our bicycles smart – doing away with the need for large electronically-driven docking stations that many conventional systems in countries overseas use (YouBike in Taiwan, CitiBike in USA, or Velib in Paris, to name a few).

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Thus, our bicycles will be parked at inexpensive and space-efficient bicycle racks, allowing greater accessibility and lower costs for users. Scaling the systems will no longer be limited by the large capital needed to build multiple docking stations, but rather only by the number of bicycles we can provide.

The sharing economy also provides multiple benefits for subscribers over personally owning bicycles. Users can be relieved of the burden of ownership, no longer having the worry about maintenance and theft. It can also provide greater flexibility for commuters, enabling them to ride to work in the morning and return by bus if it rains in the evening.

Our secondary aim is to innovate and contribute to the cycling landscape in Singapore. With our smart devices and close partnership with the respective land owners, highly-travelled routes can be improved for better mobility and safety, while providing potential insights to creating shortcuts between destinations.

As such, better infrastructure for off-road travelling can be designed and implemented in the future.

Some tidbit: “Zai” is also known colloquially (Hokkien) as “very good in something”!

How and why did you come up with the idea?

As students from SUTD, we were excited by the prospect of having a campus located in the East, close to East Coast Park (ECP). This gave us the opportunity to travel to ECP for night cycles and leisure activities. However, renting and returning bicycles from our campus, and at night, was not convenient.

To solve this problem, a few friends and I wanted to see how we could apply the skills and knowledge we gained from our education in SUTD. As an engineering school, the most direct option was to create an autonomous 24/7 bicycle vending machine.

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After some research, we came across the concept of bicycle sharing systems that are immensely successful overseas.

In the summer of 2015, we travelled to Zhejiang, China, and Boston, USA on our exchange trips to experience the Zhejiang Public Bicycle and Hubway respectively. Upon returning to Singapore, we began growing our group and ideating on introducing a viable bicycle sharing system in Singapore.

A year down the road, we finally had ZaiBikes being ridden around our campus, and night cycling in ECP became a reality for SUTD students!

How big is the company now? How many users do you have?

Our company consists of nine members, some inadvertently on a short-term basis due to the nature of our occupation as students.

We currently have about 160 sign-ups to the system, and 80 users, drawn from the the pool of around 900 students in SUTD. We do expect an increase in ridership as development is continued and our service area expanded.

Has the company received external funding, and if so, how much and from whom?

Our first source of funding came from SUTD-MIT International Design Centre. Under the research grant, we acquired S$20,000 (US$13,900) over the past year for development.

On top of that, our recent crowdfunding campaign garnered about S$3,500 (US$2,430) and an additional S$300 (US$200) through offline means.

We will be acquiring another S$7,000 (US$4,680) grant from SPRING as part of the SUTD Entrepreneurship Capstone Project (commonly known as final year project in other institutions) funding scheme.

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What are a few challenges faced by the company?

We see some social and cultural obstacles when it comes to cycling and the sharing economy in Singapore. In the eyes of many Singaporeans, cycling was not seen as a form of commute partly due to the lack of infrastructure and education on cycling in Singapore.

Although buoyed by a recent movement by many government agencies in engaging an active lifestyle in Singapore, it may still take some infrastructure to be rolled out island-wide, and even more time for Singaporeans to pick up this new cycling culture.

The concept of sharing of private commodities with the public in Singapore is also not prevalent. Seeing this, much of the interaction between people and our system cannot be modeled reliably, which makes discovering the attitude of Singaporeans towards bicycle sharing much more experimental.

As such, more expenses will go into experimenting these behaviours, which also causes our technological development to lag behind the results.

Flying out of the block may not be possible, but we are confident that the model, to rely on low capital outlay by using smart bicycles, decreases this risk of failure when implementing the system.

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How does the product differentiate itself from competitors?

Compared to conventional models, the use of smart bicycles differ in many ways as previously mentioned. The biggest change will be the ability to track the movement of all the bicycles in our fleet.

Doing so provides multiple benefits on both the system and user level. In many systems overseas, bicycle vandalism and theft is a significant contributing factor to the cost of the system.

Despite Singapore enjoying a relatively safer theft rates, these issues still incur unwanted costs. Using smart bicycles allow us to deter and identify vandalism and theft, keeping unnecessary costs away from users.

Location tracking can also provide greater service to our users, enhancing the social factors of cycling with friends, suggesting interesting and iconic places to riders along their route, and providing emergency services in the event of accidents.

When comparing to other smart bicycle systems overseas, the uniqueness of Singapore’s culture and infrastructure forces us to develop our system differently too. This ranges from system level decisions on where and how bicycles can be parked, to the user level on how much Singaporeans depend on smart phone technology.

How does the company generate revenue?

Although still exploring this aspect, we are looking at a mix of sponsorship, advertisements, contracts and usage fees. With the dependence on smart technology in our system, we are interested in developing a model for online, targeted advertisement and licensing the data.

What keeps you going when things are rough?

Since releasing our idea to the public and testing out the system in a real scenario, we got the chance to speak to many user, supporters, critics and partners.

We received many encouraging comments and challenging questions from them, which makes us strive to live up to their standards and meet their expectations. We were initially hesitant to put our service out so early in the development phase, but that had given us amazing opportunities to interact with our users!

What are your plans for the next six months?

We have a few projects in the pipeline concerning potential expansions to a few regions in Singapore.

The next six months will be our development phase as we experiment with new technology and different models. Our operations will continue to run within the vicinity of the SUTD campus, and further improvements and experimentation will be carried out there too.

Nonetheless, we are still open to any potential collaborations with land owners, or users who wish to try out our system firsthand!

Also Read: It will take more than tech to solve traffic problems in Asian cities

How has SUTD helped to develop your startup?

We would definitely like to thank our SUTD professors and staff for the support they’ve given in making ZaiBike possible and pushing us to get this idea out there. SUTD not only provided our education to apply on our work, but also provided a fantastic student community that we could get in touch with to share our ideas. All that is in addition to the funding that they are providing us to develop our concept.

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