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Making easy, clean and affordable mobility the norm: Interview with Rachel Lesslar, Founder, Vostok Electric

According to the World Bank, some 56% of today’s world population – 4.4 billion inhabitants – live in cities. This trend is expected to continue, with the urban population more than doubling its current size by 2050, at which point nearly 7 of 10 people will live in cities. The higher urban densities are putting pressure on carbon emissions and mobility, among many things. 

How will people move and commute in an affordable, efficient, safe and sustainable way in highly urbanized locations? Do city dwellers, who typically travel for less than 15 km. per day, really need traditional vehicles like cars or motorcycles?

Vostok Electric, a Bilbao-based company working in the area of electric vehicles and mobility, is tackling this challenge, with their current line of urban vehicles as well as future plans to go into energy generation and storage.

We caught up with Vostok Founder, Rachel Lesslar on how Vostok came about and what sets them apart from their competition, how a Spanish startup is taking on e-mobility with China as a dominant player, the future of e-mobility and the support they received from the Biscay Government.

How did you get started with Vostok Electric? 

The seeds of Vostok were planted from a very young age. Growing up and living in Malaysia, Johor, meant that I was exposed to the thousands of gasoline motorcycles crossing the Johor-Singapore bridge. This combined with my later experiences in Ireland where my family built an eco-house ingraining sustainable living, having my own experiences of using electric mopeds in Asia and meeting my co-founder who had the same interests in sustainable mobility, soon gave roots and foundations to Vostok.

When we started with our market research in 2015 in Europe, we found that people were not making the transition for 3 main reasons. 1. Range anxiety 2. Lack of public charging infrastructure and 3. Premium prices for the vehicles. Nothing was a real alternative to a gasoline moped or motorcycle. So, for our first development, we decided to create a moped completely comparable in desire and performance to a gasoline moped. We developed a moped with a 130km range, high-capacity light removable battery packs with lithium ion and at a price that was comparable to what was on the gasoline moped market. We wanted to contribute to the transition into the new electric standard with real solutions.

Starting any startup or any business comes with its fair share of challenges, and we were challenged right from the beginning with funding, manufacturing, slow adoption rate.

Automotive is undoubtedly a male-dominated sector, and there are always challenges when there are such unbalances. To illustrate, most of the designs and concepts to date have been biased and from the perspective of one side. It has been rewarding being able to contribute from a female perspective.

What sets the Vostok motorcycle and scooter apart from its competitors?

We have a very urban-centric focus. What is a real urban vehicle? Is it large, bulky and heavy?

We focus on two main aspects. Firstly, design: Urban friendly, practical and desirable. An urban vehicle for us as you see in our Vostok E7 motorcycle is compact in design, lightweight which is favorable for performance and has a very unique design.  It is practical with its removable battery packs; all parts are easy to change and repair.

Secondly, Performance and quality. How well does this vehicle perform? What is the driving experience like? Focusing on small details like ensuring the speed does not reduce as the battery capacity reduces. Maintaining top speed. We have put a lot of focus into optimizing the power train and overall driving experience.

We are building extremely durable products that we want to reflect in our own values of being sustainable.

For our electric kick scooter Vostok E8, we develop and manufacture it locally, in the Basque Country. We use extremely durable aluminum chassis and premium air tires that increase its overall safety. Kick Scooters are now used as daily vehicles, and although you can buy something for 400€, it often lasts for only about 2 years, small wheels, and heavier, it also poses questions of durability and real safety that can help reduce accidents.

As cities become denser, we are finding that people want a way to move from A to B fast, effectively and safely. The new micro-mobility transport they select is also a representation of the person or business.

Vostok was founded in 2016, how has the opinion and appetite towards electric vehicles changed since you established Vostok? 

Yes, we have definitely seen a greater acceptance towards electric vehicles overall. Focusing particularly in the micro-mobility sector, this is mainly thanks to the big kick scooter sharing boom in 2019 in Europe, many people were able to try new alternatives, this came at a time when we were also hit with covid, and public transport was a less desirable option, which gave great education and growth to the overall sector.

As previously mentioned, the barriers we found in 2015 have been lowered but it still exists. The change will take time, and with government support has expedited the transition and made it more realistic. Main barriers like high prices, the perception of EVs and infrastructure especially for bigger vehicles like cars are still an issue, especially for those in less privileged positions. However, overall, we are seeing an increased demand.  Over half of consumers — 52% — who intend to buy a car in the next 24 months say they will choose an EV or hybrid vehicle. That’s up 11% from 2021 and 22% in 2020.

EV sales continue to rise faster than expected, boosted by rising consumer confidence in the technology as well as by fears over gas prices and road pricing.

EV in general is seeing a greater increase in the market, and it is inevitable that through time, there will be mass adoption. Currently, we are also seeing a shift in mindset as to how transportation is seen. Consumers are considering whether they really need a car for their daily commute, or will a motorcycle or kick scooter suffice for the short distance that they are travelling. Many European countries already have low-emission zones in place, in Spain there will be mass implementation, which will also play into the decision-making of vehicle type for many people and businesses.

China has been dominating the electric vehicle (EV) market and only recently we are seeing huge strides towards higher electric vehicle targets in the US and Europe. What is it like being a Spanish EV startup taking on a Chinese-dominated market?

From a micro-mobility standpoint, there are still huge gaps and improvements that can be implemented. Chinese brands are doing a great job with helping adoption rates as there is a great variety and they sell more than 41 million electric two-wheelers per year, they were undoubtedly at the forefront, but there is still a huge gap in product performance, materials used, and adaptation of the product for the western market.

We are not competing on the same values. For us, sustainability is not a hot keyword that we throw around without giving it weight.

We are exploring different materials and manufacturing processes that we can use in our future developments that will have less impact on the environment. We are also in a planning phase with local governments about manufacturing our motorcycles in Spain. It is important to us to help also sustain the European economy by giving back into it, this will also help with our goal of reducing our carbon footprint (from logistics to materials). Of course, it will take time to make that transition, and we may not be able to bring 100% of the manufacturing to Europe as China continues to provide specific parts and continues to be the manufacturing powerhouse in this sector, but we aim to have at least 80% here by 2024.

Why do you think e-mobility is gaining so much traction now? What do you think is next for the market?

There are many contributing factors to this in my opinion. Firstly, as we all know, there is a global agenda to contribute to the climate change we are seeing. Many governments across the globe are implementing drastic measures to reduce the effects of climate change and the transition to electric alternatives is one way. Alongside this, car manufacturers have pledged to phase out fossil-fueled vehicles. People and businesses themselves are also more environmentally conscious, and there has been an increase in demand for more ethical products and approaches over recent years.

There has been a shift in how vehicles are viewed. A vehicle is no longer just a car or motorcycle.  Smaller micro-mobility solutions are also being considered during the purchasing phase. Most city dwellers do not travel more than 15 km per day, and many of the micro-mobility solutions can cover that distance no problem on a charge or two per week (depending on the vehicle). EV as technology is also being validated as time goes on as a reliable alternative.

Lithium battery prices will reduce the overall vehicle cost. Also, in terms of maintenance, electric vehicles have fewer parts and are far easier to maintain – making it just a lower-cost vehicle to run in comparison to a gasoline vehicle or other solutions. The rising oil prices have also made electric vehicles a more attractive option, as it is about 9 times cheaper to charge an electric moped than to fuel it with gas for example.

Vostok is founded in Bilbao in the Biscay region in Spain. What is the startup and innovation ecosystem and climate in this region?

To be honest, it was not a conscious decision. I ended up in Bilbao in 2012 working with a company here at the time.  Coincidentally, my cofounder whom I met in Asia was also from Bilbao. As we started developing the project, we started exploring different support systems in Spain. We found that the Basque country was by far the most supporting region in Spain for Startups. We applied for the grants that were available, we were soon accepted, and we were set up with a coworking space, training and relative support for start-ups. The help and support given here is very personalized, and I imagine that it is very different to cities like Madrid and Barcelona.

I know of cases where companies from Madrid and Barcelona have moved to the Basque country to set up as there is a support system in place, and the ecosystem is growing year on year.

Did you receive any external help to get you started and grow your business?

Biscay Government supported us in many ways. There is a program called Creation of New Innovative Companies, under which they accompany you through the different stages of your company. We have received area 1-2 of this grant covering constitution, marketing, events, certifications, prototypes, and first technical or business development hire.

In addition to that, they have well-connected foreign ecosystems for entrepreneurs. The programs such as the Bridge to Mass Challenge and the Global Program have supported us in networking and improving our business model. We also achieved the Bizkaia international start-up connection grant which helped us identify our markets and growth opportunities in the US.

We are also facilitated with an appointed expert who supports us in all matters with just a phone call as they are well-versed in a start-up journey and its uncertainty.

Where are Vostok products available for purchase right now? What are your expansion plans for 2023 and beyond?

We are available online at www.vostokelectric.com. We are also sold across Spain where our mopeds are stocked with our retailing partners.

We launched with the Vostok E7, an electric moped that has a 50kmh top speed, up to 130km range with two removable battery packs, a powerful motor with peaks of 2900W, Premium lithium-ion batteries, and of course, its retro-futuristic design.

Vostok E8 is our electric kick scooter, designed and manufactured in the Basque country, with the spirit of a bicycle. It is one of the safest kick scooters on the market. Thanks to its construction and the use of 20-inch front bicycle wheel, the kick scooter has an integrated, natural suspension, allowing a safe and comfortable ride across cobble and uneven surfaces. We have also designed it with a powerful 350W motor, and a 36V10.5Ah battery pack.

Vostok E9, has the same design as our Vostok E7, the difference is that it is an electric motorcycle, and classified as L3e. It can reach top speeds of 80Kmh, allowing urbaners to go onto highways, if necessary, on the outer ring, before coming back into the city.

The E9 has a 3500W motor with peaks of 5000W, and a battery pack capacity of 72V 50Ah, giving you around 100km range per charge. Currently on pre-sales, with delivery in January 2023.

Next year we begin with fundraising for a completely new concept and will start manufacturing here in the Basque country and Spain. We cannot wait to share what is to come.

Parallel to that, we will continue to grow across Spain and our next launch cities will be in Portugal and the UK with our distributing partners over the next quarter.

Urban vehicles are just the first part of our journey, in the future we will go into energy generation, and energy storage and using our battery packs to give them a second life, creating a complete synergy and full circle for our Vostokers.

Maricel Sanchez
Maricel Sanchez
Maricel Sanchez has over 10 years of experience in various fields including trading, supply chain management, logistics and manufacturing. As well as helping startups to raise funds, she is an award-winning public speaker and the current President of Toastmasters Nice, a bilingual club that promotes public speaking and leadership.

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