Alumnus, Nick Bailey has recently launched Boost Bikes a new business to convert road bikes to electric bikes. With a potential congestion charge in Cambridge and the Ultra Low Emission Zone being extended in London, it’s a perfect time to make cycling easier, more accessible and affordable, at a fraction of the cost of buying an e-bike.
Our bike shop network enables customers to get the Boost Bike kit fitted by a local bike shop with the confidence that there's a warranty, someone's going to look after you over that period.Nick Bailey founder of Boost Bikes
Nick is an Engineering alumnus, Magdalene College. He graduated in 2002 followed by a varied and distinguished career in businesses such as Cambridge Technology Consultancy Sentec, Deloitte, Centrica and Shell.
In January 2022 he founded Boost Bikes, designing and producing a very neat kit to convert an ordinary bike into an electric bike. In true entrepreneur style Nick works out of his home in south London.
The company launched its first product in Autumn 2022 with an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and subsequently raised significant investor funding.
In 2023 Boost Bikes first full year, they sold hundreds of conversion systems and over 100 bike shops around the UK have joined a Boost Bikes network enabling anyone to get the kit fitted without needing DIY skills.
To give you an idea of how it works, here’s a video shot by Electroheads:
We caught up with Nick to find out more.
What inspired you into your field?
Whilst studying at Cambridge I went on a cycle tour around Malaysia with engineering friends. That was what first got me into enjoying the freedom of cycling and cycle touring.
I've learned a lot in various engineering and business roles since then; with Boost Bikes I've returned to my original desire to design and create my own products. The Boost system I've created makes it easier for people to get out and cycle and have the sort of adventures I had cycling around Malaysia. That sense of freedom and adventure underpins the whole product. Making cycling accessible for more people by making it easier is the key.
I was a hobbyist engineer a long time before Cambridge. I was always messing around with bikes, inventing and making things. I was less academic and at the more practical end of students at Cambridge. I was fortunate to get into Cambridge; I know I would have done engineering in some form regardless. Hobbyist engineering combined with my degree at Cambridge and my time working as a professional engineer meant that I am now able to tinker with a brand new concept and take it all the way through to a product.
A lot of the systems to convert bikes to electric bikes are fairly basic. Most of the companies making e-bike conversion systems buy pre-packaged parts from overseas, there's not really any engineering added to them in the UK. I wanted to build something, not necessarily 100% from scratch, but where I had added a significant benefit into the product.
I believe strongly that the UK need to do more grassroots and practical engineering: not just relying on China and the USA to design things for us. We need to have a framework for helping engineers and inventors to get on and make things. I was fortunate that I had the experience of studying at Cambridge and the hobbyist engineering world so that I could jump into the middle of this, but I think it would have been tricky if I hadn't had that.
How did your career develop?
It’s been 21 years since I graduated, and I've worked in a variety of company sizes and roles. The first major engineering role was in a technology company in Cambridge called Sentec who were involved in measurements and smart metering. They are still based in Cambridge, one of the Cambridge success stories. I learned first-hand the difference between hobbyist engineering and professional grade - turning bench prototypes into products. There's a substantial difference between making something in a lab versus production for application in the real world.
Sentec’s designs ended up as millions of electricity meters in the USA. Those meters could be in direct sunlight at 120 degrees Celsius or below zero for the whole day. As a design engineer, you can't just think about the one product that survived in the lab; from the early stages you have to consider all the adventurous and unexpected conditions that your product might find itself exposed to, as well as the humans using it.
The practical side of making products at scale underpins what I'm doing with Boost. I knew I had something that was worth doing properly and from the beginnings of the design I considered how to make it efficient and optimise parts cost. After leaving Sentec, I worked in larger corporate IT environments which were more about managing and growing technology teams. This gave me experience working with engineers all over the world to deliver software projects and has helped with Boost in creating partnerships with suppliers.
Were you working for someone else and creating your first prototype as a side-line? Or did you make a break and take a gamble?
I had just finished a contract at a corporate company before the COVID crisis and was fortunate to have some savings from that as the job market ground to a halt. During COVID I started a project to help neighbours to help each other. I built a website called ‘Local Helpers'; people who needed assistance could register on the website and it would link them up with their neighbours who they didn't necessarily know. I think that it did help a few hundred people to find people near them so that was my little contribution at a time of huge uncertainty in the world.
A successful product must fulfill a need and I think I first became aware of the growth of e-bikes from my aunt. She had heard that older people were keen to hire e-bikes to tour around scenic areas such as where she was living in the south of France. To help out, I researched where to source bikes and what was available, and it sparked my curiosity about the energy storage within lithium battery and the power of compact motor systems.
The projections of growth three years ago for e-bikes and electric mobility were spectacular and these have turned out to be accurate, and the market is due to double in size by 2028. At the moment in Germany, e-bikes are outselling conventional bikes.
I bought a second-hand motor from eBay and was able to create something relatively quickly by taking a ‘Lego’ approach to cobbling together functional parts for a very early prototype. I had in mind a small, elegant product which wouldn’t be noticed on the bike. The majority of conversion systems on sale at the moment are not compact or discreet, with wires all over the place. Many conversion systems are fitted on the front wheel of the bike which I believe does not provide the best experience for the rider. It's better in my view to have the motor on the back of the bike where the weight is less of a factor and the drive power comes from anyway.
Over a period of three months or so I evolved the beginnings of what would become the Boost system. I started to get interest from people that I had spoken to about the system. I started designing it in a more production focused way, rather than just a one-off way, and to enjoy getting back to doing some grassroots engineering. I hadn't had a soldering iron out or designed electrical circuits for a few years before that point, so I enjoyed rediscovering my old skills in creating physical products rather than purely software.
So the process was creating that first prototype by yourself and then testing it, and it develops and improves from that first prototype?
Usually, with a prototype you can take off-the-shelf sub-assemblies. You search to see if somebody else has built a module that will do the same sort of thing that you need, and you know that you can redesign it in the future. I chained together a few different blocks of components and wrote software to run on the little ‘Arduino’ computer to instruct the motor controller.
Arduino is a popular hobbyist engineering software and hardware collection of products that makes it relatively easy to create small devices running proper software. We’ve all heard of Raspberry Pi; Arduino devices are smaller and can be run from batteries.
I then made the jump to design a single integrated circuit board that contained an Arduino computer combined with power supplies and a motor controller using high end automotive electronic switches. The high level of integration makes the Boost brushless DC motor controller much smaller than other conversion products. It took five versions of the circuit board to perform reliably under load. Once the circuit design was proven, I’ve since been able to quickly change the shape of the board to fit in enclosures for other types of bikes.
When did you look for people to work with you?
I was self-funding for the first six months. I found a factory to supply a relatively off-the-shelf battery which I customised. The motors are off-the-shelf with custom 3D printed components that I designed. I bought ten or so motors as a trial and started selling the conversion kits on eBay very much aimed at hobbyist enthusiasts, as an alternative to other conversion systems. I wasn’t aiming out to the general public at this point; on eBay there are lots of hobbyist engineers searching for interesting stuff if you can put the right title on your listing.
Some of the first customers that bought the conversion kit from eBay are still involved with Boost. They were intrigued that I had made such a compact system and bought one. It wasn't as reliable then as it is now as a system. But within a few months I had a system that I was happy to sell more widely on eBay.
Over the course of 2022, I started looking for investors. The government scheme called SEIS (Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme) was developed to help small, early-stage companies raise funds by providing a number of tax reliefs on investments made into qualifying companies. It took about a year while developing the product to raise several hundred thousand pounds from early-stage private investors (‘business angels’) who provided the seed funding for stock and marketing.
The investment enabled me to create the basic structure of a company. There's a transition where you move from selling one-offs to having to sell 10. At 10, I could still build each one myself. The stage we've ramped up to over the last few months is really the ability to sell hundreds and in May 2023, we sold 90 kits. Obviously, I can't individually build 90 kits, so I had to have a production line. I found a local assembly company who could grow our capacity. In parallel we created an ordering and fulfillment system to manage the lifetime of the items we build and track them all the way to the customer.
Our next big investment goal is to raise a larger sum as necessary to expand into Europe in 2025. We aim to at least double our 2023 revenue in 2024. There's a step change in scale between 100 a month and 1000 a month and we intend to reach this scale in 2025.
Many people don't realise that there are about a billion bikes in the world. That's a lot of bikes! If our Boost Bikes conversion system is compatible with 10% of that, which I think it is, probably compatible with 20% or 30% then that is over 100 million bikes for our available market. We have an almost unlimited number of bikes that we could potentially convert if we have the right price point.
Can you tell me about the bike shops that fit your conversion system?
We currently have around a hundred bike shops across the UK supplying and fitting the system. Maybe one in 10 people, generally cycling enthusiasts, would feel confident to install their own e-bike conversion system. We think there’s a silent majority of 9 out of 10 people who would like their bike upgraded to electric and would prefer it done safely by a shop. It’s this 9 out of 10 people that we see as the big opportunity for Boost. A lot of our engagement with bike shops and the general public is explaining that upgrading to electric is safe and legal.
We’ve just created a brand-new conversion system for Brompton bikes which is selling very well, and we’re aiming to get the first batch to customers in early 2024.
What kind of reception have you had from the engineers in the bike shops that fit the Boost bikes conversion kits?
When we started, I thought that bike shops would be reticent to fitting our Boost converters, as many bike shops have the experience of people coming into the shop with a bike that's been converted badly. Bike shops generally have to turn those people away and that undermines other companies such as Boost that are trying to do things properly.
We reached out to bike shops via trade magazines with the core message that the Boost system is safe and we are ready and able to support shops and customers. It’s a fantastic product for bike shops; stocking e-bikes is very expensive whereas stocking Boost is much more economical. It means a bike shop can get into the new world of electric bikes for a very small commitment and outlay. Bike shop mechanics don't have to be electrical experts because we've provided a system that just plugs together.
Our bike shop network enables customers to get the Boost Bike kit fitted by a local bike shop with the confidence that there's a warranty, someone's going to look after you over that period.
That I think, is an interesting point from an engineering point of view, taking a design from the prototype through to a physical product that customers want, but then wrapping that in a broader proposition, which is the overall experience you're giving the customer. As an engineer you can end up being very focused on a particular circuit board, but it takes a lot more to create a value proposition, which is what you actually need to sell to customers.
How about bike riders what has their feedback been like?
We’ve had fantastic feedback, and we have a Facebook community with almost 500 users who swap tips and pictures of their bikes. Our customers are delighted with their newly upgraded bike and have saved a lot of money from buying an e-bike. We have had great reviews from cycling specialist and lifestyle journalists too. We use Trustpilot as a third-party review platform and consistently receive 5-star reviews.
The bike expert reviews are excellent –
Presumably, it'll be something you'll want to sell overseas.
The next round of investment should allow us to grow into Europe, most likely starting with an office in Berlin. Now that the UK is no longer part of the EU, it’s difficult to send products directly to EU customers, so we must maintain stock & fulfil it from Europe. Europe is a huge potential market; for example, Belgium by itself is a larger cycling market than the UK and Germany and The Netherlands are much larger.
What contribution to your field are you most proud of and why?
There's been a bit of a resurgence over the last 10 years in getting people back into design and technology and engineering and I would like to be part of helping talented engineers take their ideas all the way through to mass production.
One thing I’ve learned acutely since founding Boost as a company is how important it is to properly identify your customers and how to market to them effectively. I started by assuming that if I engineered a great product, people would tell each other, and it would become an overnight success. This is sadly not how it works; it has taken a huge effort to create a brand around the Boost system and the necessary marketing materials (images, copy, adverts, videos) to give customers the confidence to spend money with us. We also spend a lot of money on advertising - it’s the only way to bring a product to market. I want to take these learnings to the next generation of engineers.
If I can get the Boost Bike kits to a scale that enables me to be recognised as a UK inventor, then that's something I'd like to actively be a part of.
What is the best career decision you've made?
My best career decision so far was taking the risk to create the Boost bikes conversion kit. I'd had some savings from working in the corporate world, so I was able to back myself at an early stage. It is an unfortunate truth that some pre-investment funding is necessary - most companies do start with support from friends and family.
I think if you have ideas, the first thing to do is to try and create a prototype. And I would say that's the best decision for anybody who wants to get into something new, create a prototype or demo, make something that you can show to people. With 3D printing you can take designs and get them created. It’s very easy to create prototypes - make a prototype and get stuff out there.
What is your advice for someone considering a career in engineering?
Engineering is a fantastic discipline; I love that I can create products that help people in their day to day lives. Engineering takes ideas from maths and physics and mixes the human element, discovering what people really want and need; it’s fantastically creative and problem solving. Engineering as a degree is highly rated by employers in finance, law and many other high-profile careers so it’s a perfect path for anyone interested in both technology and people.