This Chinese Startup Solved the Biggest Problem in Bike-Sharing

 fortune.com  7/18/2017 12:00:23 AM   Robert Hackett

When Davis Wang took a look at bike-sharing programs around the world, he identified a problem with many of the incumbents: docking stations. The technology forces people to travel to certain places to pick up and drop off the wheels—and stations aren't always guaranteed to have an empty spot.

Wang, who is CEO and cofounder of Beijing Mobike Technology Company, or Mobike for short, decided to take a different tack, he said Monday at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo. Riders can hop on his bright orange bicycles and leave them wherever they please.

The bikes accomplish this, and avoid being stolen, by coming equipped with "smart" locks that people can interact with via Mobike's app, Wang said. (More than a dozen of the company's bicycles were available for test rides at a stand outside the main tent on the campus of the Aspen Institute where Brainstorm Tech took place.)

Wang compared rival bike-sharing tech to the desktop computer, in that users have to go to a physical place to access the gear. His bikes, on the other hand, are like smartphones, he said: usable anywhere and everywhere (in participating cities, of course).

But there's a potential hitch, noted Clay Chandler, executive editor of Time Inc., parent company of Fortune, and weekly columnist on Chinese business as part of Fortune's CEO Daily newsletter. Because people enjoy coasting downhill (and not slogging uphill), you might expect the bicycles to pile up in certain areas, Chandler pointed out during his interview.

Not so, countered Wang. Mobike stocks all of its units with GPS tech and SIM cards, "Internet-of-Things" additions that can help track and control the flow of bicycles in an urban or other landscape. So if too many bikes stack up in a particular area, the company knows and can get them moved somewhere else. In fact, Mobike incentivizes its users to redistribute the vehicles, when necessary, by compensating them with account credits.

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Mobike has taken—and continues to take—the world by storm. The company has more than 100 million users who take an average of 20 million trips on its 6 million connected bikes every day, says Wang.

The most visible Chinese contender in the bike-sharing market (which also includes dozens of competitors like arch-nemesis Ofo), Mobike has raised an astounding $928 million in funding since its founding a mere two years ago, according to Crunchbase data. The company operates in China, Singapore, Japan, and England, and reportedly has plans to enter a total of 200 cities by the end of the year. (Washington, D.C. is rumored to open soon.)

Brainstorm Tech attendees who didn't get to try the bikes in Aspen will have another chance to take a spin soon. At the close of the session, Fortune executive editor Adam Lashinsky appeared onstage and announced an expansion of the Brainstorm Tech franchise: an International edition will be held Dec. 5-6, 2017 in Guangzhou, China—a Mobike location.

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