Disrupting Taiwan’s Cycle of Complacency

With bicycle exports declining, a bike venture program seeks to shake up the industry by integrating venture capital and disruptive innovation.

As Asia’s largest bicycle trade exhibition, Taipei Cycle is a focal point for anyone interested in the latest industry innovations. This year – which also marked its 35th anniversary – was no exception.  

The 2024 expo, which ran between March 6 and 9, had a prominent focus on ebikes. Taiwan has long dominated the medium-to-high-end bicycle market, currently manufacturing between 70% and 80% of these bikes and components worldwide. The transition to ebikes was logical and relatively seamless, combining the country’s electronics expertise with its cycling industry prowess.   

As of Q3 2022, Taiwan was the largest exporter of ebikes to the EU, accounting for 53% of the market. During the same period, the value of Taiwan’s ebike exports raced past that of traditional bicycles, accounting for 70% of its total bike export value. Units for ebike exports are expected to exceed those of conventional bikes by 2025, according to data from Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI).  

However, it hasn’t all been smooth riding. A confluence of circumstances, including anticipation of sustained growth following a post-pandemic boom in global bike sales, has culminated in what bicycle industry publication Show Daily called “a vicious cycle of oversupply and dwindling demand.” 

Exports of traditional models dropped 34% in units and 37% in value between 2022 and 2023, according to data from the Taiwan Bicycle Association (TBA). For ebikes, the corresponding figures were declines of 34% and 22%, with the smaller drop in value caused by a higher average price per unit.   

Admittedly, these figures may not tell the whole story. “One reason for declining export numbers from Taiwan is the ongoing shift of production to Vietnam,” says Laurens van Rooijen, a senior editor with Show Daily. Ahead of a trip to Taiwan for Taipei Cycle, van Rooijen visited seven Taiwanese-owned factories in Vietnam’s Binh Duong province, some of which are still under construction. “While technically from Vietnam, these exports still end up in the books of Taiwanese companies,” he says. 

One issue that has been identified with Taiwan’s bicycle industry in general and ebikes in particular is the surprising lack of cooperation with Taiwan’s world-leading tech sector.  

“Given our strength in the bike industry as well as ICT manufacturing, there has been very limited interaction between the two spheres,” says Elisa Chiu, founder and CEO of Anchor Asia, a venture capital and ecosystem-building platform. “I believe this is a huge missed opportunity.” 

Other obstacles include weaknesses in corporate innovation, digital transformation, and strategic investments, Chiu says. She also cites a failure to leverage capital markets effectively, highlighting the U.S.-based bike brand Specialized as an example of a company with its own venture arm. “We rarely see that kind of thing in Taiwan,” Chiu says.  

The Bike Venture program spotlighted 10 startups from Taiwan and abroad in bike-related fields at the 2024 Taipei Cycle.

To address these issues, Anchor Asia collaborated with the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA) to stage the inaugural Bike Venture program. The initiative situated itself at “the intersection of mobility, technology, and capital,” spotlighting 10 startups from Taiwan and abroad in bike-related fields. Bike Venture honorees were invited to pitch products and services in areas such as electrification, IoT, delivery services, and ESG solutions. The companies are at various stages of funding and development, but all favor a disruptive business model. 

Honoree and Taiwan-based entrepreneur Elias Ek is no stranger to such an approach. As founder of B2B services firm Enspyre and co-organizer of Dragons’ Chamber, a pitch event for immigrant entrepreneurs, Ek has more than 20 years of experience in business development. More recently, Ek co-founded Keego, a provider of professional delivery ebikes manufactured in Taichung – the epicenter of Taiwan’s bicycle industry. 

The first Keego model was launched at Taipei Cycle 2022, yet Ek describes encountering “a steep learning curve” as the vehicle was tested on the streets of European cities. “The couriers tore it apart,” he says. “These are hardworking people who drive maybe a hundred kilometers a day, maybe six or seven days a week.”  

Drawing from this critical feedback, Ek explains how the product evolved incrementally, culminating in the third generation of the bike, which he confidently asserts is the premier ebike for delivery currently available on the market. 

With front- and rear-mounted racks and a longtail design, Keego’s KG4 model can support 65 kg of cargo for last-mile deliveries. A KG5 model that integrates IoT connectivity, advanced anti-theft features, and an extra 5 kg of load capacity is currently under development. Successful pilot tests for the KG4 have already been conducted with major food and grocery delivery services such as Getir in Turkey, as well as Just Eat and Flink in Europe.  

A formal cooperation agreement has also been signed with Uber Eats, under which the world’s top food delivery brand encourages its drivers in Stockholm to purchase or rent Keego ebikes. The deal should help Uber Eats reach zero emissions by 2040. “Aside from the Uber deal, these brands leave it to us to work with fleet managers who then lease to the couriers,” says Ek.  

Although Keego’s business is “concentrated 99.9% in Europe,” Ek says his aim has always been to see the bikes whizzing around Taiwan’s cities.  

“There are 150,000 couriers in Taiwan, and most of them are still running around on dinosaur juice,” says Ek. While this is a relatively small group, the mileage these riders get through means the emissions produced are “not insignificant,” he says.   

“The fact I live here and our whole company is based in Taiwan being the best ebike country in the world means I would love to see the bikes on Taipei’s streets,” he says.  

And there are positive signs pointing in that direction. At Bike Venture, Ek announced a deal with Taiwanese fleet manager Ecofleet. “They’ll buy bikes from us, then sell or lease them out, mainly to the couriers,” says Ek.  

In addition to startup representatives, Bonnie Tu, chairperson of the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer Giant Group, spoke about entrepreneurship at Taipei Cycle.

Addressing industry challenges 

Another honoree pitching cutting-edge ebike solutions was UK-based Skarper. The company offers a proprietary motor unit called DiskDrive, which can be attached to any regular bicycle. The ultralight, clip-on technology transforms a standard bike so that it’s “just a click away from being a high-performance electric bike,” as British Olympic cyclist Chris Hoy puts it.  

Hoy – the most successful track cyclist of all time – was an angel investor in Skarper and has been involved in developing and promoting the technology. Having secured more than US$10 million in private investment – half of which has gone toward R&D – Skarper was nonetheless keen to bring the brand to Taiwan.  

“From the moment we founded the company, we knew eventually we had to come to Taiwan,” says Uri Meirovich, Skarper cofounder and COO. “This is where the heart of the industry is.” 

Following a meeting with TAITRA representatives at a trade show in his native Israel, Meirovich received notice of the Bike Venture opportunity via the trade office’s mailing list. After a successful application and interview, Skarper was selected for the honoree program.  

Meirovich explains that previous attempts to design a removable ebike drive had presented challenges around where to place the device on a bike so the frame or wheel wouldn’t need modification. The answer to the puzzle lay in the space around the rear disc brake.  

“The connection [of the disc] to the frame is standard – either a six-bolt or center lock,” says Meirovich. “And the geometry of all discs and the bike frame around the disc must be standard in order for different discs to work with different brake calipers.” The goal for Skarper was to design a device that anyone can attach with minimum fuss. Meirovich notes that fitting the DiskDrive now takes less time than changing a tire.  

Regarding the Bike Venture program, Meirovich has nothing but praise for Anchor Taiwan and TAITRA’s efforts.  

“It’s been phenomenal,” he says. “I’ve applied for a lot of startup competitions, and this is one of the most well-organized.” He is particularly impressed by “the level of attention” that was paid to the honorees. “From the information before, to the support, to bringing the audience, they really made it happen. We couldn’t be happier.” 

One of Bike Venture’s goals was to emphasize the need for left-field thinking in industry transformation, so such feedback is encouraging. Yet hurdles remain, as was made clear in a series of panel discussions featuring industry experts.  

“The bicycle industry is still pretty traditional,” says Joshua Hon, founder of Taipei-based brand Tern, which is best known for its folding bicycles. Hon admits that his own company sticks to the tried-and-tested marketing channels of manufacturers to distributors before dealers and later consumers. 

Hon’s co-panelist Charlie Chuang, CEO of ebike company Hyena, believes part of the problem is the comfort zone created by the ecosystem in Taiwan. “Electric bikes need mechanics, software, electronics, and I don’t think there’s another place where it’s so easy to find talent from these industries,” he says. “If I stay in Taichung, I probably need just 48 hours to build a new bicycle.” 

The image of bike manufacturing as a conservative industry built on guanxi, or personal relationships, is a common refrain. “So many of the bigger manufacturers are still family businesses,” says Ek. “They all know each other, and there’s a lot of cooperation. If one company needs something or runs out of manufacturing space, they call their mate next door.” 

For his part, Hon says a lot can be learned from the car industry, citing Tesla’s disruptive distribution, software, and electrification practices. “There’s D2C – direct to consumer – there’s how you sell, how you develop [and] deliver service, how you finance, [and] other services you can offer, like insurance.” 

“Taiwan is the center of premium bicycles globally, period,” Hon says. “Even if the factories are in different countries, the headquarters are here – so it’s easy to communicate and build relationships.” 

A further problem for companies integrating electronics expertise into bike manufacturing is balancing both industry groups’ distinct cultures and mindsets. Drawing on his background as a digital IC designer, Chuang managed to attract top talent from the electronics industry when he started at Hyena. Retaining these skilled employees was a different matter, with many quitting within a year. The main problem, he says, was unrealistic expectations about testing and quality assurance.  

“If you’re producing mobile phones, you’d have to do 1,000 pieces for samples,” he notes. “But with bicycles, you normally try just two or three for a trial run. When electronics guys jump into the bicycle industry, they feel the quality is just [not good enough], he says. “The misunderstandings start here.”