How a bicycle theft gave birth to a start-up

A masters degree at Audencia is turning the wheels of a nascent idea
Pierre Regnier (left) and Johnny Smith, co-founders of Velco © Jean-Sebastien Evrard

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When Pierre Regnier discovered his bicycle was stolen, rather than becoming angry and frustrated at being powerless to do anything about it, his thoughts turned to a potential business opportunity.

Regnier wondered whether there was a way of integrating a tracking device into a bike’s structure to enable the victims of such thefts to have a chance of catching the perpetrators or at least retrieving their property.

The thought evolved into a start-up, called Velco, aided by two fellow cycling enthusiasts whom Regnier had met at an entrepreneur convention at Audencia Business School in France.

At that first meeting two years ago the trio hatched a plan for each to study for a masters qualification at Audencia in entrepreneurship, during which they could work on a business plan to help raise the necessary finance to get the idea off the ground. “We all arrived [at the convention] by bike, which made us talk about common pains cyclists have,” Johnny Smith, another of the three co-founders, recalls. He is now entering the final year of his masters in management.

The Nantes-based higher education institution not only provides a meeting point and a place to learn business skills, it also offers office space and technical support in areas such as strategy, marketing and corporate finance through its start-up incubator programme. “Audencia [has] provided access to a huge network of people,” Smith notes, adding that the trio were able to create an advisory board of people from successful companies who had studied at Audencia.

The product the co-founders decided to focus on was a handlebar with built-in lights and wireless bluetooth capability, enabling it to connect to a smartphone app. It offers cyclists directions on pre-planned routes using flashing lights, as well as alerting them to incoming calls. It also warns cyclists if their bikes are being moved without their knowledge and has a tracking device to help police locate stolen bikes. They call it The Wink.

Romain Savouré, the third founder of Velco

Its design has been a collective effort with input from French insurance companies, local government officials, police forces, manufacturers, wholesaler and cycling clubs. “Mixing our competences has been our biggest strength,” says Smith, who was made Velco’s chief marketing officer partly because it was felt his English and Spanish parentage would equip him with an understanding of selling the product outside the French market.

Regnier, the chief executive, is in the final year of a double degree studying business at Audencia and engineering at the Angers faculty of France’s Eseo Institute of Science and Technology. To gain experience of living outside France and to get a feel of other markets, Regnier has completed parts of his courses at the campuses of partner colleges in Wales and the US, as well as working in London. “For me, it was crucial to have an international background to be open-minded and to discover the Anglo-Saxon lifestyle,” he says, having grown up in France. While studying, Regnier has undertaken some consultancy work for local companies, using the proceeds to seed fund Velco.

The third co-founder, Romain Savouré, is completing the same course combination as Regnier, but has also studied at the University of California, Berkeley. He is Velco’s chief technology officer, in part due to his engineering background.

The co-founders are now working on the industrialisation phase of The Wink. They are also in negotiation with many bicycle manufacturers and wholesalers.

Seven people work full-time at Velco but the company has relationships with more than 30 partners on different business specialisms, including technical experts, lawyers, economists and business development managers.

Ahead of launching The Wink in a selected number of cycle shops next March, Velco’s co-founders will make an initial production run available from October for investors to pre-order via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

Product development has been helped by winning cash prizes from national and international start-up contests, including receiving €10,000 from France’s Public Investment Bank.

The aim is to build on this by raising €1m, which, say the founders, would be enough to launch The Wink in France, the Netherlands and Germany over the next two years. The medium-term goal is for a turnover of more than €1m by 2018, no mean feat for a specialist device that requires consumers to rebuild their bikes.

But Velco’s trio believe cyclists will not be put off if it means they will be able to keep track of their much-loved bikes.

Johnny Smith: ‘Audencia has provided access to a huge network of people’ © Jean-Sebastien Evrard
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