Metal. Rubber. Leather. When it comes to motorcycles, the materials used to make them are as elemental as the experience of riding them.
Pineapples, flax seed and algae? They sound more like the ingredients for a vegan salad than a two-wheeler, but a new Brooklyn start-up hopes to change that.
It’s called Tarform. What Tesla has done to bring zero-emissions transportation into the mainstream, Tarform hopes to do for zero waste, building electric motorcycles that are recyclable and made from natural materials that can biodegrade.
“The idea was to create the motorcycle of tomorrow,” said Taras Kravtchouk, Tarform’s founder and a New Yorker by way of Stockholm. If you were to build a bike with sustainability in mind, he said, “What principles would it be? Electric, but also with the least harm to our environment.”
Instead of using polyvinyl chloride, Tarform is crafting its vegan leather seats from pineapple, mango, corn or other naturally derived fibers. Flax seed replaces the plastic on its side panels. And the pigments coloring the bodywork are derived from natural algae rather than toxic paints. Its aluminum frame is, of course, recyclable. And its battery pack is swappable as technology improves.
Available later this year as a customizable Founder Edition model that starts at $42,000, the Tarform Luna will go into production next year with a $24,000 version. The company already has 1,500 orders, 54 of which are for the handmade Founder Editions that will be built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
“Today, we design things for obsolescence,” Mr. Kravtchouk said. “In the ’60s, we used honest materials. That’s why vintage bikes from that era still last if you take care of them.”
Classic, timeless elegance also helps. Beauty is its own form of sustainability; no one wants to throw away something gorgeous.
It was a chance encounter with a fetching 1972 Triumph Bonneville that inspired Mr. Kravtchouk to start Tarform and build its retro-futuristic cafe racer. He was running a design agency by day and wrenching his own bikes at night when one of his clients — the motorcycle clothing company Belstaff — asked him to customize a bike for its Los Angeles store. That bike led to other customs for Belstaff shops globally and the realization for Mr. Kravtchouk that building individual motorcycles was tedious.
“I was covered in oil, and I loved it, but I thought, ‘Surely this is a dying world,’” he said. “Looking at what Tesla did in the car industry, it completely changed people’s perception about what is automotive and what is clean technology.”
He started researching electric motorcycles with the idea of building a brand instead of one-offs. He hired an engineer, solicited investors and, by October 2018, had a working prototype.
“For a very small amount of money, they had built an incredibly beautiful bike with a unique electric riding experience,” said Karl Alomar, a partner with M13, a Santa Monica, Calif., venture capital firm.
M13, which has invested in SpaceX, Lyft, Bird and other mobility tech start-ups, gave Tarform $300,000 last year after Mr. Alomar saw the prototype in person and the reaction it was getting online.
“They were nonriders — young, affluent people inspired by the technology and design aspect who had the free cash flow to be able to buy these luxury items,” Mr. Alomar said. “It led us to start believing there’s an opportunity to build a really great luxury brand oriented around environmentally conscious thinking and the ability to create real premium beauty.”
Many electric motorcycle brands are pursuing the same audience, including Harley-Davidson, which introduced its first electric motorcycle, the LiveWire, in 2019, and Zero Motorcycles, the 12-year-old California company that has seen interest in its electric motorbikes double over the past year.
“We feel very strongly about the growth opportunity with electric motorcycles,” said Andrew Leisner, senior vice president of the Bonnier Motorcycle Group. The company publishes Cycle World and Motorcyclist magazines and introduced the Cycle Volta website for electric two-wheelers last year.
“The traditional baby boomer motorcyclist doesn’t think much at all about motorcycles burning gas and rubber, or about sustainability or the organic nature of the components that bike is coming with. But that’s very important to Gen Y and even more so to Gen Z,” Mr. Leisner said. “Sustainability is going to be a huge priority for the generation that’s really entering the work force right now.”
That generation is already transforming the motorcycle industry, as baby boomers age out of the sport, replaced by younger riders and more women. Almost 70 percent of millennial riders are interested in electric motorcycles, according to the 2018 Motorcycle Industry Council ownership survey. Women, who account for 20 percent of motorcycle riders, make up 40 percent of electric motorcycle owners.
Like electric cars, battery-powered motorbikes make up about 1 percent of the national market for new vehicles, but the segment is expected to grow as battery prices come down and reduce their overall price. They currently cost about 50 percent more than their gas-powered counterparts but are expected to reach price parity by 2025.
Brammo, Alta Motors, Mission Motorcycles. The last 12 years have been littered with failed electric motorcycle start-ups, but Mr. Kravtchouk is betting that a new generation of motorcycle buyers will want products based on sustainability rather than convenience.
Modular design plays a part. Like many electric motorcycles, the Tarform is limited by current battery technology. For now, the Tarform can travel about 90 miles per charge.
“If there’s a new battery pack that comes out in three years with much higher energy density, you can simply swap the battery and suddenly you get 50 to 100 percent more range,” Mr. Kravtchouk said. “That makes a lot more sense than constantly pushing new models and pushing people to get rid of something that’s perfectly usable.”
The earth, after all, has only so much to give.
“There’s a lot of interest in renewability right now because we have a finite amount of resources,” said Martin Thuo, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Iowa State University.
Engineering the old way — mining resources, grinding them up, melting them down and beating them into shape — is not the answer. “It’s very expensive, energy intensive and it’s not sustainable,” Mr. Thuo said. “The minerals we use right now, nature has taken thousands of years to put them together. We don’t have that time.”
Plant-derived products like Tarform is using, Mr. Thuo said, are part of a push toward materials that can be remade or resupplied more quickly, with far less damage to the planet.
“Science and technology are driven by the demands of society,” he said. “With seven billion people in the world and growing, we don’t have a choice.”
Mr. Kravtchouk is sourcing many of his bio-based motorcycle parts from fellow start-ups in far corners of the world — including Thailand and Italy — in the strong belief that it’s a company’s responsibility, rather than the consumer’s, to be as sustainable as possible.
“People are tired of constantly being told to buy, to recycle, to be green. In the end, they don’t know what to do,” he said. “The thing that is ultimately the most sustainable is the one you don’t throw away.”