26 Jan 2018
Caesarea, Israel
Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Waste Management, Sustainable Mobility

As with any startup, the founders of Cardboard Technologies faced challenges when they went public with their product in 2013 — but generating market demand was not one of them. In fact, the opposite was true. Rising out of the defiance of naysayers who said their idea would never work, the company’s cardboard bicycle became one of the year’s viral product campaigns.

The disruptive cardboard bicycle was covered by media outlets worldwide, pitched at the UN’s Social Innovation Summit, and caught the eye of Coca-Cola, who wanted 300,000 branded bikes. Then, in the midst of the publicity and praise, the company disappeared.

“This was what we called our “stealth mode”, and we’re just coming out now,” says Nimrod Elmish, Cardboard Technologies’ co-founder and co-CEO.

Beginning of the cardboard bike:

To understand the reasons for stealth mode, you need to first understand the bike and its inventor, Izhar Gafni.

Gafni, Cardboard Technologies’ inventor and founder, had been cycling since a tourist gave him his first set of wheels as a teenager. He remembers the exact date when he came up with the idea for the cardboard bike: June 14, 2008.

“I stopped everything I was doing and went to the bicycle shop to ask if there had ever been a bike made out of cardboard. They looked at me puzzled, and said ‘no.’ That’s when I knew I would make it,” he laughs.

Gafni chose cardboard in order to reduce waste, and because of its prevalence around the world. He says people tend to overlook certain materials, thinking they are good for just one thing — say, shipping parcels.

“People think you’re mad when you tell them this material can do a lot. We still see people from the cardboard industry getting really angry at us for changing this thing that was so conventional.” Mad or not — the cardboard bike has the potential to reduce some of the 34 million tons of packaging waste generated in the European Union each year.

As for how that cardboard goes from recycle to bicycle, well, it turns out to be a bit of an art.

Creating (and protecting) the cardboard bicycle:

The cardboard bicycle has come a long way since prototype 2, which the team called the “box on wheels,” or, less kindly by Gafni, “a piece of sh*t.”

Inspired by the Japanese art of origami, the cardboard bike is created by cutting and folding the paper, creating a strong material that can withstand weight and resistance over time. In addition to cardboard parts made water and fireproof with the use of sealant, the bike includes some plastic components made from recycled bottles and other waste. The chain is made from upcycled rubber. In total, it will cost less than $20 to produce in an automatic production line, that is an essential part of the company’s technology.

“I fairly soon realized the strength of the cardboard wasn’t the issue — it was that there was no real technology to do what I wanted to do,” says Gafni. Not only did Cardboard Technologies have to literally reinvent the wheel — they also had to create the production line to do it.

With new innovations comes the need to safeguard those ideas. Enter Ilan Cohn, a senior partner at Reinhold Cohn, one of the major IP firms in Israel that manage Cardboard Technologies’ intellectual property.

According to Cohn, the company currently has about 150 registered patents, with just as many still pending. Those patents protect both the design of the bicycles, the elements from which they are made, and the production line technology.

And while 2013’s publicity boom caused over-demand for a product still in the prototype phase, it also presented an issue for patent registration. “If you get publicity too early, especially for new technology, it can adversely affect your ability to protect the innovation at a later date,” Cohn says. “It enters the public domain, which means people try to innovate around your idea to make it their own.” In other words, the design could have been compromised by another inventor.

Cohn says the so-called stealth mode gave the company time to corner the patent market and own all the intellectual property needed to create their products. Not the sexiest step, but an important one, nonetheless.

Pedal power ready for production:

This is where Cardboard Technologies has been for the past five years — going through the unsexy but necessary task of cornering the patent market, and working backwards to figure out how to mass produce the bike that gained fanfare worldwide.

“Today, it’s not a question of if it will work, but when,” says Gafni, comparing where their bike is now, versus during the publicity boom. “Back in 2013, that ‘if’ was still a factor because of the amount of technology that needed to be developed.”

“We gained hype we were not ready for, and could not hold this hype for the three years or more that it would take for us to produce. It was a disaster,” Elmish recalls. “The complete shutdown was one of the best suggestions I got from one of our major investors.”

On that advice, Cardboard Technologies closed the bike’s crowdfunding campaign, issued supporters refunds, froze its website, and stopped posting on social media. Publicity and market momentum were exchanged for research and development, further prototyping, and production.

Finally, five years after that initial launch, Cardboard Technologies is gearing up to manufacture and sell its first bike. Rather than creating the adult bike, the company is first focusing on mass producing its balance bike — a tricycle-like cycle to help kids get the hang of riding.

“It’s the first set of wheels anyone gets, and it often costs as much as a bike, but the lifetime of use is much shorter,” says Elmish. The more affordable price (between $39 and $49) and lightweight (2.5 kilograms) figures make the cardboard balance bike a more realistic market option. And because kids’ bikes are considered toys, there are slightly less regulatory loopholes.

Mass production will start in March 2018 in Israel, and Elmish says the first two years of product — approximately 500,000 bikes annually — has already been snapped up by huge retailers, and other North American providers.

As for the launch, Elmish says it will be more low-key than the viral marketing campaign of the past.

Cardboard for social good:

Bicycles are not the only product Cardboard Technologies will produce. The next production line will create a cardboard wheelchair that is already fully developed as a product — and then the adult bicycle. If the company’s timelines are on track, Elmish says these three products will be ready in the next 18 to 24 months. Gafni has even developed the initial prototype for a cardboard car.

“We also want to create disaster area management housing,” says Elmish, referring to the structures built in refugee camps or after a natural disaster has struck. “Houses made of cardboard would be fast to build, have low cost, and would be durable. From there, it’s like LEGO.”

Whatever the product, the plan is to create localized production lines around the world in order to provide low cost, if not free, bikes to families and individuals who want them, can’t afford them, and will receive them through corporate responsibility projects.

Despite the lessons of the past, Gafni and Elmish remain energized and optimistic. After all, what are a few roadblocks when you ultimately end up completing the journey on the cardboard bike that everyone said was impossible?


Find Cardboard Technologies through their website, their Facebook, or on YouTube.

Images: Courtesy of Cardboard Technologies.

Hilary is a journalist, photographer, and maker of things. She loves working with entrepreneurs to share their stories and has done so around the world.Hilary Duff
Remember the entrepreneurs who made a cardboard bike? Here’s where they are now | The Switchers
Cardboard Technologies Resource Efficiency & Sustainable Waste Management