How Currie Survived and Thrives
By Bill Moore
Currie Technologies has a relatively short, but prestigious pedigree having been founded the same year as EV World in 1997 by Dr. Malcolm Currie, the former Chairman and CEO of Hughes Electronics. Prior to Hughes, he'd been the president and CEO of Delco Electronics.
The company's CEO today is Larry Pizzi, who joined Currie a little over four years ago as senior vice president for marketing, though he'd been aware of the company almost since its inception when Dr. Currie offered him a position. Pizzi said he "passed" on that original invitation to join what he thought was still too new a company with few products and little sales track record.
"It was really a kind of bootstrap operation," he said.
A long-time cyclist, Pizzi opened his first bicycle shop with a friend when he was 18 and eventually grew it into a successful chain of retail shops before selling it and eventually accepting a position with the bicycle division of Brunswick Corporation, which Pizzi subsequently helped sell and transition to a new owner.
While Dr. Currie didn't have any luck at Brunswick, he did at Schwinn and according to Pizzi that provided the catalyst that really launched the company. While early success with a Schwinn-branded product proved fleeting, the company, which was one of the largest bike manufacturers in the U.S. at the time, did become an investor in Currie Technologies.
The little silver electric motor that powers my own personal Currie Folding Bike has evolved significantly since the early days of the company, Pizzi told me.
"Currie Electrodrive is not only how we trademark that propulsion system that you have on one of the original bikes, but all of the drive systems that we currently use. We've been working with a lot of vendors to design product that is specific to our needs and requirements, and we have a sort of 'house' of drive system components for various applications."
This 'house' of drive systems powers a wide variety of vehicles that range from electric bicycles to children's toys. In the case of electric bikes, Pizzi referred to them has hybrid-electric, which he defines as human pedaled bicycles with electric assist, or what others often refer to as pedalecs.
"You have to be contributing to make the product go." Meaning you have to be turning the crank to get electric assist.
Over time, Currie's drive systems, which are energized by lithium ion batteries, NiMH and conventional lead acid batteries, have become increasingly more sophisticated from the original "twist-n-go" where the bike would go whether the rider pedaled or not to the latest system that senses pedal torque and applies the appropriate amount of electrical energy.
While many of Currie's product still utilize the simple "twist-n-go" system, including a new three-wheeled bicycle for older or physically-impaired adults, the higher end bikes largely meant for overseas markets use the hybrid system, giving the company ready access to the widest range of markets where bicycles aren't just viewed as recreational toys, but as every-day commuting vehicles. In many countries, regulations require the hybrid system. The U.S.A., however, has no such requirements, other than the maximum wattage of the motor is 750 watts, which is equivalent to about 1 hp.
"However, the more important reason that we do it", Pizzi explained, "is that on certain technologies, we add a significant amount of performance and range by making it a hybrid vehicle as opposed to just a pure electric vehicle."
To illustrate this, he noted that a common "twist-n-go" system with a basic battery pack will carry a rider 18-20 miles, obviously depending on numerous variables.
Incorporating the pedal-assist sensor that requires the rider do most of the work at launch from a stop, which is when much of the energy in the battery is consumed, adds another 20 percent to the range of the bike. The more sophisticated pedal torque sensor system improves over the "twist-n-go" by around 40 percent, he said.
Pizzi considers himself a bicycling "fanatic" having been actively involved in cycling -- including racing -- since a child.
"I use my bikes for recreation and transportation, as well as for exercise," he said. He admits that he, like many devoted cyclists, was originally somewhat disdainful of the idea of adding an electric motor to a bicycle, but in his words, "the landscape has changed."
He too was quite skeptical of Dr. Currie's idea, "but then I guess I started to age."
"I think there are a lot of dynamics at play here. One is the innovations in battery technology and electronics technology that make an improved product readily available. The second is rising fuel prices. I think that is giving cause for a lot of people to look for alternatives to getting into their cars; especially for neighborhood transportation or relatively short commutes.
"The third is the aging population. You know, the reality is that aging baby boomers all over the world are used to an active, outdoor lifestyle, and just because they may not be as able as they once were to go for a long bike ride or run, they still want to be outdoors, they still want to be active, they still want to get some exercise in the process.
"The fourth issue is very significant and that is there is a significant awareness of environmental issues, much more so than I think of anytime in the recent past. People are truly concerned about global warming. They want to make a positive contribution in the environment.
"So a lot of things are beginning to come into play that I don't think were in play ten years when Dr. Currie founded the company. I think it's really spurring some interest that is really significant on a worldwide basis, certainly not just in the U.S., but all over the world."
While Currie continues to work with other bicycle and scooter manufacturing partners to put the equivalent of "Intel Inside" in the form of its branded "Powered by Currie Electrodrive" systems on their bicycles, it now has launched its own line of products under the name iZip.
The most recent development in the company, apart from the launch of the iZip product line is an agreement with Fallbrook Technologies to use their NuVinci continuously variable planetary (CVP) hub.
"We rode the product and were completely blown away by its performance and ease of use on a conventional bike," Pizzi stated.
Currie realized that Fallbrook's CVP, when mated to its own electric drive system could really enhance the performance of its product line. He said that Currie is just beginning to "scratch the surface" of how to exploit the NuVinci "smooth cruise" CVP, starting with one of its electric scooter models.
All of Curries products are now built oversees in China where in 2005 one of its principle vendors took an equity stake in the company, creating what Pizzi calls a "vest interest" in the quality of the product. He said Currie went through a major restructuring that included investment in training and quality control systems. Today, onsite QA personnel in China report daily to their procurement counterparts here in the US. The plant in mainland China, which is owned by a Taiwanese company, now produces 100 percent of the company's product line.
Finally, Pizzi credits Dr. Currie's vision and tenacity, as well as management skill, with keeping the company afloat over the last tumultuous decade in which other high-profile players from Ford Motor Company to Lee Iacocca have come and gone.
"The guy just doesn't quit. If not for his passion, we would have likely gone the route of all the others."
From Pizzi's perspective, the difference was in how Currie approached distribution. Unlike the other one-time players in the market who opted to work through conventional bicycle channels, the former head of Hughes, chose to go the co-branding route with companies like Schwinn and Brunswick.
"Initially, independent bicycle dealers were slow to adopt, so he looked to alternative channels." He believes that had Currie tried to follow the most logical distribution channels, the company probably would have failed like all the others.
As it stands, the company is enjoying the rewards of a growing interest and demand for electric-assist bicycles, especially in countries where cycling is viewed as an important transportation option and not just a recreational outlet.
He also sees the competition heating up, but he thinks that unless they are willing to make a long-term commitment -- and not just dabble in the market -- that they too will eventually fall by the wayside.
"However, I welcome their entry," he added, "because exposure to the category can only benefit the entire industry."
Be sure to listen to the entirety of our 34 minute-long conversation which includes more specifics and details that this brief synopsis allows. You can use either of the two MP3 players in the right-hand column or download the file to your computer for transfer and playback on your favorite MP3 device. Here's the download link; right click and "Save As": http://www.evworld.com/evworld_audio/larry_pizzi.mp3.