Portal Bikes: A Ride From Colorado to Kathmandu

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Portal Bikes: A Ride From Colorado to Kathmandu

 

Stepping into Portal’s office is like stepping into the minds of everyone behind it: warm, open and creative. The building, which was built by the employees of Portal themselves, has an air of creativity and innovation about it. Here, you feel as though amazing work will be done. Portal bikes (much like myself) has awkwardly charmed its way into people’s hearts.

Even before launching their first bicycle, Portal has turned so many heads that it bodes well for us to press the question:“What exactly is Portal?”

The simple answer I was provided with was, “Portal is a social business that wants to help the community.”  Portal is special as in stark contrast to many businesses in Nepal, no one working at Portal, simply works at Portal; all of their employees are huge fans of their bikes and are passionate about the project at hand. A project that Portal’s tagline sums up very nicely: “Innovations that empower”.  

 

No one working at Portal, simply works at Portalall of their employees are huge fans of their bikes and are passionate about the project at hand.

 

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From Colorado to Kathmandu

Born to a family of contractors in Colorado, Caleb Spear, the founder of Portal, was always tinkering, designing, and building new things. After graduating from Colorado College in 2005, Spear came up with the design of the power take off unit (PTO)- a device that when hooked up to a bicycle, could power any machine. After painfully helping their neighbours remove the kernels off the corn with their hands for a whole day, Caleb and his wife, Emily Spear, wondered if there was an easier way to do this. In their research, they came across a corn sheller that they could connect to their PTO. This got them thinking about how many other forgotten inventions there were that could potentially help people.

An avid mountain biker, Caleb was always fascinated with the bikes and their ability to transform society. He then asked himself a question that, arguably, has led to the most progress for human society: What if I put the two together? Thus, the idea for a Portal bike was birthed: a long tail cargo bike connected to a power take off unit. Leaving behind several successful businesses in the USA, Caleb and Emily flew to Nepal, a country they both had fallen in love with. There they met up with Dustin Alarid, Tenjing Gurung, and the other staff of Portal. In a small workshop in the corner of Epic Mountain Bike, they started working on their first prototype in 2013.

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Rounding out Earthquake Relief

As Portal Bikes was taking off, the April 2015 earthquake struck Nepal. Portal was forced to put its bikes on hold and figure out how to help the country. While trying to find its role in rehabilitation, a friend of theirs told them about the arched shelters built in Pakistan after an earthquake had struck there. Having access to all the materials, skills, and machinery required, they decided their manpower would be most productive in sheltering the homeless.

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Thus Portal Shelter was founded. Portal spent the next three months building the round shelters and providing instructions on how to build it. By the time the project was closed in June 2015, Portal themselves had built 596 shelters and provided the materials for another 4678 shelters.

Subsequently, realizing that the round shelters were not feasible for long-term habitation, it started another venture: Portal Prefab. Under Portal Prefab, Portal fabricated earthquake-resistant homes in their workshops. Homes that could be transported on the back of a mini-truck, and assembled on site with nuts and bolts by individuals with little to no building experience. With color-coded pillars and easy instructions, Portal’s prefabricated houses are easier to assemble than Ikea furniture.

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The Portal to a New Design

As things started to stabilize, Portal started finalizing the design for their long tail cargo bikes. Collecting feedback from the 30-odd prototypes that they sold earlier in 2015, they carefully tweaked every aspect of the bike to ensure it was perfectly customized for Kathmandu roads and Nepali needs. After dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s, Portal launched their first bike and their first retail outlet on 16th September this year.

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Innovation for innovators

Portal takes immense pride in the fact that their products are not the end of the journey for their customers. When they built Portal Shelters, the shelters themselves were just a metal arch; the responsibility of closing the ends was given to the occupants. This, Dustin says, created a space for individuals to innovate in their houses, making it more than charity. The case is the same with Portal Prefab, which has chainlink fence wrapped around it instead of walls, which they expect the customers to finish. This gives people an emotional buy-in towards the house instead of it becoming a turnkey project.

Even the Power Take Off (PTO) unit in their bicycle has endless opportunities for innovation. The simplicity of the PTO, with which you can transmit pedal power into an output system, means that anyone can develop a machine powered with the Portal bike. Portal expects and wants ordinary people to develop machines for the PTO; they just need to find a problem in society that a machine can solve, like a washing machine that Portal developed which runs completely off the PTO on the bicycle.

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Portability with Portal

With a Portal bicycle Bharat Koirala, a wholesaler of home products, can make his rounds in four hours in contrast to the eight hours that it would take with his old Indian bicycle. Portal bikes, having a seven-speed gear system, makes carrying loads easy, maximising the productivity you can squeeze from a bicycle. However, Portal is not only for businesses. The Spear family uses the bike on a day to day basis; it makes grocery shopping so much easier. Tenjing told me that Caleb’s son, the then seven year old Zion, could ride a Portal bicycle with his mum sitting in the back.

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Inexpensive quality

To make their bikes accessible, Portal wants to make them as inexpensive and ergonomic as possible. While recognising that the first Portal bike (expected to be around 30k Rupees) might be expensive for the community they want to serve; as the company grows they hope to make their bikes exponentially cheaper. Quality however, will never be compromised. “Just because someone is of a lower economic background does not mean they should get lower quality goods”, says Dustin. Their bikes, according to Portal, are the bridge between day to day bikes and the rickshaws that carry washing machines. Their bikes still have the functionality of a city mountain bicycle, yet carry six water jars at the same time (Please don’t use Portal Bikes as a rickshaw though. If you try carrying a washing machine on it, you will hurt yourself).

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Portal has been, for the most part, sustaining on the capital earned by selling Caleb’s US-based business. This has been supplemented by donations. In the near future they wish to be a fully self sustaining company. A microfinance EMI scheme is also in the works where individuals can pay for the bikes in weekly installments. They hope to partner with micro-finance institutions so that everyone has access to their bikes. By helping small-scale businesses, they wish to truly be a social organization helping to fight poverty.

 

Their bikes still have the functionality of a city mountain bicycle, yet carry six water jars at the same time.

 

The road ahead

While it looks like Portal is trying to reinvent the wheel, what it has done is taken the wheel and tweaked it to fit the needs of the developing world and its businesses. (They have literally redesigned the wheel in the process. It’s bike wheels can withstand a hefty 200 kilos). Under its model, social empowerment does not have to be a one-sided relationship. In a culture where big offices make projects for small communities without talking to them, Portal designs its products with the individuals who use them, who can then take that design and modify it to fit their needs.  By doing so, Portal has created a structure in which buying a Portal Bike is not the end of the story, but the beginning. Portal leaves it to you where to take it.

 

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Comments

  • Guest
    Paul Wednesday, 01 November 2017

    Thanks for sharing that amazing story of creativity and innovation.

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Guest
Guest Monday, 11 December 2017