There’s a home-grown electric motorbike that’s being used for everything from delivering pizzas in Wellington to herding cows in Waikato. Michael Andrew visited Tauranga-based UBCO to learn more about their sleek machines.
In 2016, Waikato dairy farmer Grant Coombes was wandering around Mystery Creek Fieldays – the southern hemisphere’s largest agricultural event – when he passed something distinctly out of place. It was the world’s first electric-powered two-wheel-drive motorcycle, designed for the New Zealand farm, and made by a Tauranga-based startup called UBCO.
“It seemed like it was a bit of a gimmick,” says Coombes. “I knew nothing about it. It was on a stand and they were revving it up and both wheels were spinning. I didn’t actually consider it at the time. All I thought was ‘who would ever buy that?’
“A year later, I had seven of them.”
The New Zealand farm has long been the domain of loud, smoky machines. Other than the animals, there’s little else that better epitomises the bucolic realm than the diesel ute, the two stroke farm bike or the Massey tractor – all hissing and roaring around a rutted landscape of grass and dust and mud.
It’s probably the last place you’d expect to see a clean, green electric vehicle doing the everyday work of hardy internal combustion workhorses. But thanks to a robust design and persistent innovation, more New Zealand farmers like Grant Coombes are adopting UBCO’s electric work bike, which is proving to be just as capable – if not more – than its petrol counterpart.
“We saw this as an opportunity to move away from the quads and two-wheelers we were running at the time; the quads are expensive to run and maintain and the two wheelers we had were heavy. In the rain, the back tyre gets filled with dirt, and they just couldn’t get up hills when it was wet.
“The appealing thing about the UBCOs is that they’re light and have a lot of torque down low, so we could get over land that we couldn’t with a standard two wheeler, or lift it out if it got stuck. And the other thing is the lack of heat and noise. It’s great around the stock.”
The bikes haven’t been without their faults, however. First introduced to both acclaim – and scepticism – in 2014, UBCO’s 2X2 work bike has undergone several generations of research and development over the years, with each one tweaked and modified to endure the rigours of New Zealand’s rural environment even better than petrol machines.
UBCO’s CEO Timothy Allan says the bike, now in its fifth generation and sold in New Zealand, Australia, the US and Europe, has been designed in line with the feedback from farmer customers, and is now available to buy for around $8,000, or to lease via a subscription.
“The farm is a 365-day-a-year working environment,” says Allan. “There was always something getting broken or not working. But the golden line is for the bike to get up every day of the year and work continuously over its life without fail.”
“Nobody makes that line today. Not a single company. And some of these companies have been around for 50 years. Our vehicle now is probably at 90% of where we need to be – there’s been a change in the perception of electric.”
That change in perception, and the recent eruption in enthusiasm for electric vehicles, explains a large part of UBCO’s growth from a grassroots company to a global EV provider. But it was a different world in 2014, when electric bicycle pioneers Daryl Neal and Anthony Clyde brought their first prototype – a two-wheel drive electric utility bike called the “steed workhorse” – to the Mystery Creek Fieldays. The bike caught the attention of Timothy Allan, whose R&D company Locus Research was sponsoring the event.
“I was really impressed – both Daryl and Anthony had spent about 10 years in the e-bike (bicycles) industry and working in China. Anthony goes back to one of the very first e-bikes in New Zealand. I went with him to China in 2015 and went through the entire supply chain. I was pretty impressed with the whole setup and thought ‘we can do this’.
“We developed brand UBCO within six months of Fieldays.”
With Locus Research helping with the design and engineering of the product, UBCO began raising private capital. The early investment of a local family allowed the young company to move into a more formal phase and underwrite its first production run in China. The product landed in February 2016, and 150 units were delivered to customers throughout New Zealand. The first customers to buy a fleet of bikes was Real Journeys, a tourism business in Queenstown, and the Department of Conservation, which wanted the near-silent bikes to monitor trails in ecological areas while preserving the peace. Allan says the quietness of the bike was a massive selling point for many customers.
“If someone’s enjoying a nice tramp in a national park, they don’t really want to hear a two-stroke engine. Someone buying back the ability to hear their environment was a real game changer for us.”
Investment and global expansion
With ambitions to take the company global, in 2016 Allan presented the brand to Tauranga-based Enterprise Angels and secured Series A funding. He then stepped down from Locus Research and became UBCO’s CEO, and, with sufficient media attention boosting the profile of the bikes, started looking at opportunities in the US market.
“We needed to get offshore, but we weren’t guaranteed as to how we could do it. I met technology entrepreneur Bob Ralston, and next thing, in late December 2016, I went to Eugene, Oregon to present to a group of investors.
“Probably within six months, we had basically created UBCO US with about a million dollars of US capital.”
With a background in complex R&D and a tendency to delineate the most intricate components of the bikes, Allan makes the US expansion sound almost simple. Rather than go through an established distributor and compete with hundreds of other products, the company established a US branch of UBCO to market and sell the bikes – thus achieving deeper market penetration and brand recognition.
Next came UBCO’s move to make a dual purpose road-legal bike, which, Allan concedes, was anything but easy. As the new bike had to meet on-road quality specifications, UBCO’s supply chain had to be overhauled in order to manufacture it and change the 154-part bill of materials. However, the decision to launch the new bike paid off in 2018, when the GM of Domino’s Pizza NZ, Cameron Toomey, ordered three units to demo as delivery vehicles. He liked the bikes, and there are now over 50 with Domino’s, some purchased but most on subscriptions.
“We’ve been very lucky to have people like Cameron Toomey and Real Journeys,” Allan says. “Their endorsement then helps other things happen. You need the support of those key people.
“Even when we got adopted by DOC, it was one guy, Roy Baker in the central North Island, who argued the case for us.”
With the US market picking up, UBCO formally launched into Australia, precipitating a massive growth spurt. In 2019, the company secured $5.6m through Snowball Effect investors and Venture Capital fund GD1. The innovation continued, and the following year, UBCO introduced its fifth generation product range, including the off-road-only 2X2 Work Bike, the road-legal 2X2 Adventure Bike, and detachable batteries that riders could mix and match, depending on their needs, and use independent from the bike.
An UBCO on every paddock?
One of UBCO’s most compelling developments is the extension of its subscription service, which allows households, farms and businesses to lease the products for a fixed monthly fee that covers the bike, battery and servicing. The subscription, funded by the government-backed Carbn Group with investment from New Zealand Green Investment Finance Ltd, will fast track Allan’s vision to have an UBCO electric utility vehicle on every farm in New Zealand.
Allan says this model also allows UBCO to take control of product stewardship, and prevent the irresponsible disposal of the bike’s components, some of which contain very dangerous materials.
“What do people do with a farm bike now [after it dies]? They put it in fucking hole.
“But an EV is much worse. You’ve got to remember that an EV has some extremely valuable and rare earth materials and electronics, and some of them are actually very well known to be toxic. Lithium is a class nine dangerous good and there’s a lot of embodied energy in one of those cell packs. So you can’t and you should not just throw batteries away.”
Allan says that although EVs help reduce carbon emissions, carbon is only one of eight environmental indicators, and he’s therefore never marketed the company on a platform of “sustainability”.
“You can’t put on your green jumper and go around proclaiming that EVs are the next best thing – you have to be thinking about the whole of life consequences about what you’re doing.
“Subscription means that in theory, in the longer term, we are going to be the best people to take it back and try get it back to the product it was at the start. You have to design for disassembly. It’s not an easy job. But it is absolutely a critical challenge.”
With UBCO forecasting its annual revenue to climb from $3m last year to over $12m in 2022, the company will have far more capacity to perfect and conquer the intrinsic challenges that come with a rapidly developing technology. Its next big hurdle will be manufacturing its electric side-by-side four wheeler – which it hopes to get onto farms as an alternative to the traditional quad. However, because quads are notoriously dangerous vehicles that result in five deaths and thousands of injuries each year, Allan says UBCO is not taking the task lightly.
“The biggest existential discussion in this company has been, do we want to make a vehicle class that kills people? At 65kg, the 2×2 [motorcycle] will not. The 4×4 is a different story. We had to firstly agree that we can make something that was substantively different, and secondly we had to agree that we could make it safe.”
A growing business down on the farm
As for Waikato farmer Grant Coombes, he has no doubt that as EV technology becomes more advanced and more affordable, more farmers will begin to adopt it – he often gets calls from other farmers asking about the bikes. However, he says the trend will be less influenced by fancy marketing and brand recognition than it will be by genuine relationships between the buyer and seller.
“In farming circles, trust is a big thing. Brand is not as big as trust. So when I go to buy my machinery, I go to my guy that I know and trust. I assumed that these guys [from UBCO] are reasonably trustworthy. And I took them at their word as to what they were saying it could do. And lucky enough, it worked.”
With a robust national conversation on carbon emissions becoming increasingly clamorous, Coombes says farms’ transition to new technology will be invariably influenced by how clean it is. However, he is wary of virtue signalling with his electric bikes, especially if the energy used to charge them is coming from unsustainable sources. “I hope we are not burning coal down at Huntly to charge my motorbikes – because what am I actually achieving?”
In any case, his farm hands are taken with the UBCO bikes, which are due to be swapped out for the newer models soon. But what about the electric 4×4, or even an electric ute once it comes out – what does Coombes think of one of those on the farm?
“That’d be brilliant. I can’t wait.”