In Florida and across America, transportation is the topic du jour. From cities embracing cyclists
to public forums on local travel
, transit seems to be top of mind almost everywhere.
And with growing populations of urban dwellers in Tampa Bay area downtowns
, the need for more -- and better -- local transportation options is real.
Could this be the very theme that earns Tampa Bay a prominent place on the national startup map?
Consider Marbel Founders Matt Belcher and Mary Marr.
Four years ago, the husband and wife team moved to the Channelside neighborhood of downtown Tampa from a suburb of Indianapolis. Having never lived in an urban environment, they quickly found that many of the local restaurants and shops they wanted to visit were just a little bit out of reach. Driving and searching for parking can sometimes be inconvenient, while walking can get uncomfortable during the mid-day heat.
Seeking a solution, the couple came across the idea of an electric skateboard. Existing models, however, were either poorly designed or limited in power.
"I didn't grow up skateboarding. I just thought, 'There has to be a better way to do this','' Belcher explains.
Turns out, there was. Two years later, the world's lightest electric skateboard was introduced on the streets of Tampa.
The Marbel board
made its official debut at the Pour House
at Grand Central At Kennedy
, where Belcher and Marr began to set up unofficial demos during Flicks and Food Trucks
events. The rest is history.
"I'm very pumped that it's gone so well. I really think Tampa's the perfect place for us -– there's so many things that the city is doing, like the expansion of the Riverwalk
,'' says Belcher. "It's a good situation and we can use it as a model for other cities, to show how great electric transportation can be.''
Locally Inspired, Community Driven
During a chance meeting in a Publix parking lot, Belcher heard about the Tampa Bay WaVE accelerator program
, a resource center for entrepreneurs in early stages of their startups. In July 2013, Marbel was accepted to the program.
The accelerator "provides people and connections'' like Christine Mendonça
, who has helped Marbel navigate the world of international business and shipment as they grow.
"WaVE provides a lot of networking and sometimes a little bit of structure when you need it,'' says Belcher. "It's an opportunity to be around really smart, successful people who we hope will rub off on us, who we can learn from, which will help make the company better.''
Earlier in 2014, Jacksonville crowd-sourcing and fundraising festival OneSpark
provided the startup with their biggest public showing to date and the opportunity to get feedback on a larger scale. It wasn’t a major fundraising success for Marbel, but it raised community awareness.
It was a Kickstarter campaign that really put the company in the national spotlight
Within days of the campaign launch, the team had surpassed their goal of $90,000, made national news
, and saw backers pour in. In total, 542 backers pledged $365,966 toward the Marbel Electronic Skateboard campaign. Once funds are dispersed, production will begin.
World's Lightest Electric Skateboard
The Marbel board has the ability to go around 10 miles per charge, but can achieve 13-14 if the rider is conservative and the road is relatively flat. On their first "long-distance'' outing, Belcher and Marr rode from their condo near Channelside
to the Wine Exchange Bistro
in Hyde Park Village
, roughly five miles round-trip, on one charge.
Like electric cars, the boards make a light hum, which can draw attention from passersby. It wasn't hard for the founders to find test riders who could offer feedback.
"People would realize that we didn't kick-push there, we're holding something in our hands, and they'd start asking questions,'' Belcher explains.
The board charges via a simple port on the front that "opens and closes like an Otterbox.'' In 90 minutes, it's ready to go. How fast? Up to 20 miles per hour, and the team is working to extend that speed to 25 mph.
If you're thinking that 20-25 miles per hour is pretty fast for an electronic skateboard, you're right. Marbel boards come with customizable settings to fine tune and adjust to your specifications, which can be tweaked via a handheld wireless controller or a Dashboard application that can be operated from iOS or Android mobile devices.
The team considered throwing in a helmet with each pledge, but through Kickstarter's TOS, projects are prohibited from including anything they didn't make themselves. Belcher hopes to develop a partnership with helmet companies in the future to ensure that riders are protected.
"We definitely encourage people to wear safety gear,'' he says.
Current Marbel board prototypes are all handmade. The Kickstarter funds will allow the team to use molds to create a tailored, structured production method going forward so that when everything pops out of the mold, it's perfect.
The final product will be "pretty much the same as in the Kickstarter video
,'' Belcher says.
One change is the addition of bumpers. The front nose and back tail are currently made from carbon fiber and Kevlar; the final product will feature a "bumper'' made out of urethane, the same rubber as the wheels.
So far, the board has been non-revenue producing -- which means no salaries. A few experts were consulted on various aspects of the project, but "by and large, the team worked on passion alone to make it possible,'' Belcher explains.
Current team members, all based in the Tampa area, include Belcher and Marr along with Nate Madera, Yliana J., Louis Meschino, Brandin Lewis and Will Chase.
Here To Stay In Tampa Bay
In coming months, the company will focus on growing the team, pre-sales, and fulfilling Kickstarter promises. Early bird shipments of the Marbel board will roll out in October 2014, with full production ramping up in late 2014-early 2015.
Belcher started working on the Marbel Electric Skateboard concept in August 2012 in a warehouse space he uses to operate an iPhone accessory business. The facility is located at 78th Street and Causeway Boulevard in Brandon, but Belcher says that his "dream situation'' would be to relocate closer to downtown -- maybe Channelside, maybe Ybor City.
"It just kind of depends on how big it grows and how fast it all happens,'' he says.
The Tampa tech community sometimes can be concerned about promising startups leaving the area to relocate at the request of investors or venture capitalists.
With Marbel, one thing is certain: "We have no intention of going anywhere -- we really like Tampa and this is where we want to call home,'' Belcher says. "The support and enthusiasm that we've gotten from the community is just awesome,'' he says.
Justine Benstead is a freelance writer who spends her days walking her dog in her South Tampa neighborhood, drinking far too much coffee, tweeting @JustineinTampa, and taking photos with her trusty Nikon. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.