They built a vehicle and now want to build a business

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 15, 2013 - 9:43 PM

A group of mostly Minnesota investors have built a prototype electric tricycle that they hope will be a hit with commuters. But big challenges lie ahead.

After two years of development, Rich Kronfeld and others are rightfully proud of their sleek, electric-powered concept vehicle called the Raht Racer.

The three-wheeled vehicle is sheathed in a carbon­-fiber pod and powered by a battery and electric motor that promise speeds of 80-90 miles per hour, though Kronfeld says he’s only taken it up to 45 mph.

Inside, it looks like a high-tech recumbent bicycle. One difference is that the pedals turn a generator, rather than the wheels, to extend the range of the battery, which is mainly recharged by plugging it into a wall socket.

“I was really impressed for a first-iteration proto­type,” said Bruce Jones, chairman of the Automotive and Manufacturing Engineering Technology Department at Mankato State University, which awarded the project a $50,000 grant.

Many potholes still exist for the vehicle as it travels from prototype toward the inventors’ goal of commercialization. A financial adviser to the team said $3 million to $5 million will probably need to be raised for the next stage of development.

Kronfeld, 50, of Golden Valley, said he came up with the idea because he’s a commuter. He’s never worked in the automotive industry, and holds a degree in theater, not engineering. He produces the children’s TV program “The Choo Choo Bob Show” and has spent much of his career in show business as a writer, actor and producer, including a stint in Hollywood for Comedy Central.

A few years ago, Kronfeld commuted by bicycle from Golden Valley to Eden Prairie. “It was an hour and 20 minutes each way and it was totally weather dependent,” said Kronfeld, who now works in St. Paul.

To get more speed and protection from the elements, he considered buying an aerodynamic bike with a shell body, called a velomobile, as well as an enclosed German tricycle called a Twike that has an electric motor assisted by pedals. Then he thought of building something himself.

“My light-bulb moment was, ‘What if the pedals are not connected to the drive train?’ ” said Kron­feld, who conceived of an electric vehicle with pedals that only generate electricity.

The name, Raht Racer, contains an abbreviation for “recumbent automotive human transport.” He envisioned it would more like pedaling an exercise cycle, with variable resistance and on-screen programs tailored to fitness goals.

First he needed a designer for the shell, so he advertised on Craigslist, and soon heard from Lyon Smith of Winona, an artist who has done architectural and 3-D work. Smith, 41, has been designing things much of his life because he grew up watching and helping his father, Leo Smith, a noted sculptor and folk artist in Winona.

Lyon Smith designed and built the body, working out of a studio at Winona-based Wenonah Canoe, whose owner Smith knows. It was the beginning of a collaboration that eventually would include other partners with varied technical skills.

As the work got going, Kronfeld heard about, applied for and won a $50,000 grant available through Mankato State from Xcel Energy’s renewable development fund. “I was amazed,” he said.

Some parts of the Raht Racer, including the electric motor and regenerative rear braking unit, are off-the-shelf components, he said. Stew Roberts, owner of the Foreign Service, a Roseville auto repair shop, wired the vehicle and got it running, and others helped with software, the pedal generator and frame, Kronfeld said.

The controls are on the handlebars, leaving the driver’s feet free to pedal. Digital screens offer readouts of battery life and pedaling effort. Kron­feld said the team has not yet determined how far the vehicle can travel on a fully charged battery.

He and Smith said the next step is to build a second prototype with two seats. That is going to require help, probably from investors or an established vehicle maker. The developers would like to manufacture the Raht Racer in Minnesota, selling it to urban commuters who might otherwise ride a bicycle. They hope to sell them for about $12,500 each.

“This is not likely to be the majority means of transportation,” said Dan Halpern, president of Healthcare Investors, a Minneapolis firm that helps start-ups, and who has advised Kronfeld. “It is for a subset of people for whom exercise matters and for whom sustainability and their carbon footprint matter.”

He said Kronfeld and the other inventors could try to interest an established company in building and marketing the vehicle, or attempt to raise more money to manufacture it. They’ll need to “be as lean as possible and leverage outside contractors’ capabilities,” steps that Kronfeld has already taken on the prototype, Halpern said.

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