Hitch a Ride on a Commuter Scooter With Pasadena Startup

By Nick Ostiller

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When it comes to the largest technology hubs in California, the obvious directions to look are north toward Silicon Valley or west toward Silicon Beach. Rarely is Pasadena associated with intrepid startups, but a small company located in the heart of Old Town is determined to change that perception. Known as Urban626, this vehicle design venture has gained momentum in recent months following the successful rollout of its first prototype: a foldable electric scooter called the URB-E.

Designed to assist urban commuters with the “last mile” — the distance from where their public transportation ends to where their work or home is located — the URB-E is a simple, 35-pound contraption created three years ago by entrepreneur Grant Delgatty, who has taught at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena since 2007 and is now Urban626’s chief creative officer. Another co-founder, Sven Etzelsberger, offered his engineering skills to invent the URB-E’s patented folding mechanism.

“Compactness and lightness were our main focuses during the development of the URB-E,” Etzelsberger, a former lead engineer at Porsche and current chief technology officer at Urban626, said in a video on the company website.” It’s a truly personal vehicle that goes with you everywhere you go. It had to be light enough to be carried up a flight of stairs or to be lifted into the trunk of a car. We spent a lot of effort optimizing the frame structure with design principles from the world of high-end sports cars.”

The backbone of the URB-E is a frame made from aircraft-grade aluminum, which bears several holes that serve a purpose beyond the cottage cheese aesthetic. Removing these tube sections from the frame enhances the scooter’s overall strength-to-weight ratio.

But every strong company needs more than just a viable product, which is why Urban626 began a partnership Peter Lee in 2014. The developer in the world of high-tech manufacturing soon became the startup’s CEO, helping establish the supply chain and business model necessary to carry out the URB-E vision.

“I love developing products from prototypes to mass production,” said Lee, a Pasadena resident.

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He insisted that URB-E manufacturing should take place here in Southern California — where aircraft-grade aluminum was readily available — rather than in China. This executive confidence in a local brand resonated with local investors such as Mark Kim and Brad King.

“It’s more expensive to do it right, but we could not achieve a product to our level and our standards by making it anywhere other than someplace where we can visit the manufacturer during the manufacturing process,” said Kim, who has lived in Pasadena for more than a decade.

While Kim brings a legal background to the company, King possesses essential entrepreneurial experience. The Urban626 chairman was involved in the early stages of the popular dating site eHarmony and has worked with several other startups throughout the years.

“When you bring people together who have different skill sets as a team, then it’s really pretty magical,” said King, who moved to Pasadena from the Bay Area in 1994.

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The URB-E prototype debuted at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. By taking home the convention’s Verge Award and receiving one of the show’s “best of” honors, the Pasadena-based company officially planted itself on the national map. All URB-Es are assembled in a 6,000-square-foot location near the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Marengo Avenue, which feeds a new retail store that is set to open on Green Street in early May.

“The city of Pasadena’s been amazing,” King said. “ … They have really helped us navigate launching our retail to just being really engaged. That part has been amazing because, as a startup, you’ve got to move so fast and sometimes the city can’t move as fast. But they realize this is really important to build companies and brands here.”

URB-E scooters are 35 inches tall with a bike seat that sits 28 inches above the ground. A lithium-ion battery, which takes four hours to charge, provides the URB-E with a range of up to 20 miles. The scooter’s maximum speed of 15 miles per hour classifies it as a bicycle under federal law, ensuring that owners do not have to acquire a license or registration to ride.

“We were simply looking to solve a problem,” Lee said. “We actually say we’re a design and innovation company solving problems, and we just happened to make an electric vehicle that happens to be the solution to a problem that we have identified.

“We deal with traffic. We deal with expensive parking and congestion. We don’t really readily identify how much time it sucks away from our lives or how much money we spend or how inconvenient it is to go a quarter of a mile to meet a friend for a drink or a meal. … These all add up, whether it’s time — which time equals money — or straight-up expenses.”

Urban626 listed three URB-E scooter models for online purchase in 2015. The retail price for the best-selling GP Original Edition is $1,499. A more powerful Black Label model costs $1,699 and features a sport-tuned controller that delivers increased torque and acceleration. At $1,999, the most expensive model is the GP Electric Edition.

Urban626 has been able to cultivate relationships with online retailers such as Amazon, which featured the URB-E on its startup-specific Launchpad home page. The company has also partnered with Wells Fargo on financing plans, allowing customers to pay for their URB-Es in daily or monthly installments.

“Our sales reps both in store and out in the field can use a tablet to process transactions,” said Urban626 Director of Operations Frank Rosales. “ … We can be mobile and actually be on the URB-E processing orders. We do it both in store and on our e-commerce platform. All that comes into our main system.”

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The 12-person company is now teaming with hotels, offering the scooters as transportation for guests or employees who need to run errands. URB-Es allow tourists to reach nearby points of interest without a car or taxi on a pay-by-the-hour-basis. Similar business opportunities have been emerging at office buildings, warehouses, sea ports and college campuses.

“USC is super exciting because they’re putting together a brand-new, sustainable, integrated, city-life, walkable campus that’s trying to incorporate all of the things that we’re really excited about in terms of urban development,” said Urban626 Marketing Manager Jessica Asperger. “They’re working with us now and … it’s very close to done.”

Kim says that he has been on more than 1,000 URB-E rides with prospective customers during his tenure at the company, and he has yet to encounter a negative reaction. It comes as no surprise, then, that Urban626 is experiencing increased demand for the scooters, both in the United States and overseas. But as this startup continues to stake its claim in the compact electric vehicle market, Urban626 wants to make sure that its brand is never uprooted.

“We live in Pasadena, our families are here in Pasadena and we feel like we have an obligation to build a great company in Pasadena because it’s such a great city,” Lee said. “It’s one thing to live here and then do all your business outside, but there’s nothing like doing something organically and getting the city to come around you. You build into the city. You hire people who live here. It only adds to the city we choose to live in. We feel a strong responsibility and pride for doing everything here in Pasadena.”

Originally published for the Pasadena Outlook Newspaper on April 28, 2016.
Nick Ostiller can be contacted on
Twitter or by email at nostiller229@gmail.com.

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• Journalist based in Los Angeles • nostiller229@gmail.com

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