09 Oct 2017
4 min read
Portal Bikes is a Nepal-based bike-manufacturing company that started out with the vision to encourage innovation among and empower underprivileged people. The company started working on its first bicycle prototype in 2013, unsure about how far they could make it in their mission to ease lives. But in the few years that the company has been running, they have achieved some major milestones. They have established two sister organisations--Portal Shelters and Portal Prefab--ventures that helped build prefab houses and makeshift shelters for earthquake victims. The company has also designed and built a range of Portal Bikes--long-tail, heavy-hauling cargo bikes.
A social business that aims to manufacture innovative and adaptable bicycles to transform, simplify and power people's lives and businesses, Portal Bikes' aim is aptly summed up by their motto: Innovations that empower.
From Colorado to Kathmandu
Born to a family of contractors in Colorado, Caleb Spear, the founder of Portal Bikes, spent much of his youth building various things and tinkering with designs. By the time Caleb graduated from Colorado College, in 2005, he had designed his own power take-off (PTO) unit, a device that, when hooked to a bicycle, could power any additional machine hooked to it.
An avid mountain biker, Caleb had always been fascinated with bikes and he believed in their ability to bring about powerful changes in society. He put his two passions together, conceiving the idea for Portal Bikes--a long-tail cargo bike connected to a power take-off unit. Leaving behind several successful US-based businesses that he could have done well in, Caleb and his wife, Emily, flew to Nepal--a country they'd both fallen in love with, and where they met Dustin Alarid and Tenjing Gurung--to found Portal Bikes. In 2013, in a small workshop in one corner of the Epic Mountain Bike store, Jhamsikhel, they started working on their first prototype. According to Caleb, Portal Bikes represents a coming together of normal bicycles and rickshaws that are used to carry goods. The bikes have the functionality of a mountain bike, and are sturdy enough to carry, say, six water jars at one go.
The earthquakes interfere
As Portal Bikes was taking off, the April 2015 earthquake struck. The company decided to put its bike-manufacturing plans on hold and tried to get into rehabilitation, and in the process, established two sister organisations: Portal Shelters and Portal Prefab. Portal Shelters successfully built 596 shelters and provided raw materials for another 4,678 shelters in the three months that it was active. Portal's sister venture, Portal Prefab, started building prefabricated earthquake-resistant homes that could be transported on the back of a mini truck and assembled by individuals with little to no building experience.
After the situation in the country started to stabilise, Portal Bikes resumed working on new designs for their long-tail cargo bikes. Based on the feedback they collected from the owners of the 30 some prototypes that they had sold earlier in 2015, they tweaked every aspect of the bike to ensure it was particularly suitable for Kathmandu roads. After dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's, Portal launched their retail outlet and their first bike on September 16 this year.
Innovation for innovators
The great thing about Portal's bikes is that its owners can do much more than just get from place A to place B. The power take-off (PTO) unit integrated into these bicycles provides endless opportunities for innovation. The idea of building the unit came to the Spears after a long, tiring day of manually removing the kernels from corn. After a full day of kernel-removing, Caleb and his wife got wondering if there was an easier way to carry out such tedious work. After some research, they came across a corn sheller that they could connect to a PTO. They then got hold of one of these shellers and connected it to the PTO unit they'd developed. This got them thinking about how many other such inventions could be powered by PTO units, and could make people's lives easier.
The PTO unit converts a normal bicycle into a pedal-powered energy-generating machine without compromising its capability as a bicycle. The user-friendliness of this PTO unit means that anyone can develop a machine that can be powered by Portal's bikes. Portal encourages and expects people to come up with ideas for hooking up their PTO unit to other machines. For example, Portal developed a washing machine that ran completely on the energy generated by the PTO unit on their bicycle. The company is also working on introducing a PTO corn sheller along with a PTO grinder.
Portability with Portal
The Portal bike has already been put to good use by quite a few entrepreneurs. With a Portal bike, Bharat Koirala--a wholesaler of home products--can make his deliveries in merely four hours, instead of the eight hours it used to take him on his old bicycle. Portal bikes, which have a seven-speed gear system, make carrying loads easy and maximise productivity. However, Portal bikes aren't just used for business-related activities. The Spear family uses the bike on a daily basis for everyday activities like going grocery shopping. Moreover, Portal bikes are very easy and comfortable to ride. Tenjing says that when Caleb's son was seven years old, he could already ride a Portal Bike with his mother on the back seat.
Quality at low cost
To make their bikes accessible to everyone, Portal wants to make them as inexpensive, and as ergonomic, as possible. And while they recognise that the Portal Bike (which is expected to cost around Rs 30,000) might be expensive for the community they're part of, the company hopes that they'll be able to cut down on production costs as the company grows. "Quality, however, will never be compromised," says Caleb. Portal has, for the most part, been surviving from the capital earned by selling Caleb's US-based business, and donations. In the near future, they wish to be a fully self-sustaining company. A microfinance EMI scheme is also in the works, through which individuals can pay for the bikes in weekly installments. They hope to partner with microfinance institutions so that everyone has convenient access to their bikes.
The road ahead
Portal Bikes isn't trying to reinvent the wheel--what it has done is taken the wheel and tweaked it to fit the needs of the developing world and its businesses. And they've shown that with the vision the venture is informed by, social empowerment does not have to be a one-sided relationship. In a culture where big offices develop projects for small communities without interacting with them, Portal Bikes designs its products with the end customers in mind--people who can then take their products and modify it to fit their needs. Meaning, when you buy a Portal Bike, your own journey of innovation and coming up with new uses for the bike has just begun.