BOULDER — I’ve never driven (or is it ridden?) a motorcycle or a snowmobile. I know that doesn’t exactly speak to my level of badassitude, but (in journalism, at least), I feel like honesty is the best policy.
So when, on a frigid and windy January day, I slung my leg over the seat of a contraption I’d only seen in photos and prepared to cruise off down a snow-swaddled trail near Vail Pass, I was more than a little bit nervous.
A few seconds later, weaving through thigh-high, powdery snowdrifts and cranking my mount’s throttle to its limit, I was no longer nervous. I was elated. I was a badass. My face was nearly frozen, and leg muscles I hadn’t known existed were screaming epithets at me. Nonetheless, my smile was ear to ear.
The source of my glee (and eventual week-long soreness) on that subzero afternoon in the Rockies was a MoonBike, the world’s first all-electric snowbike built by Moonbikes Motors Inc., a French company that has recently made Boulder its North American homebase.
The concept and technology behind MoonBikes, which weigh less than 200 lbs and can charge in a user’s garage, was developed by founder and CEO Nicolas Muron about seven years ago when he spotted a business opportunity in the French Alps.
In mountain communities “during the summer, we have tons of mobility solutions — bikes, e-bikes, skateboards,” Muron said. “During the winter, we only have cars and snowmobiles, which are loud, noisy and hard to store.”
What, he thought, if there was a quiet, efficient and fun bike-like vehicle that can be ridden over snow?
MoonBikes, the company’s North American general manager Jason Bonser said, “give people mobility and access to explore the winter outdoors in a way that’s eco-friendly.”
Muron, who left his native France to study aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech University before returning to Europe, quit his corporate gig and began creating snowbike prototypes using snowmobile technology as a model.
“It wasn’t working. I spent like two or three years in R&D trying to develop an efficient snowmachine that would work using snowmobile technology,” he said. “Snowmobiles aren’t really efficient because they have oversized motors… So I had to think outside the box.”
Through trial and error, Muron eventually hit upon a design that is 20 times more efficient than a snowmobile, along with being “easier to produce and easier for maintenance.”
MoonBikes markets itself as a wintertime mobility solution that’s accessible to everybody. While that’s certainly true from a riding perspective — if you can ride a bike, you can ride a MoonBike, as evidenced by the fact that this clumsy journalist survived his experience — its roughly $10,000 price tag might reduce some of that broad accessibility.
Owners, Bonser said, “can put it in the back of a truck, put it on a rear hitch of a vehicle. You can store it in the corner of the garage. It’s really easy to manage and own. No gas, no oil to change, no belts.”
MoonBikes’ first customers were maintenance crews at French ski resorts, then mountain tour operators.
“Ski resorts are trying to take a green shift [away from less efficient snowmobiles], and they’re trying to develop alternatives to skiing” for visitors to enjoy when they’re not on the slopes, Muron said. MoonBikes fills both of those niches.
Then, Muron said he “thought that creating rental opportunities at ski resorts would be a success.” So about two years ago the company began forging partnerships with French resorts.
“It was a big success,” he said. “Customers were very happy and it was very profitable for [the resorts].”
At that point, MoonBikes mostly operated through a business-to-business lens, but Muron saw an opportunity in the B2C space.
“We hired a team and began some sales online, mostly in North America,” he said.
When online sales began taking off in North America, Muron decided he wanted to be closer to
that action. MoonBikes already had a small crew in Boulder, so last year Muron, his wife and daughter left France and began putting down roots in the Centennial State.
“We’re very happy about this move,” he said.
Boulder is a cultural match for MoonBikes, and the city is “close to a lot of brainpower,” Bonser said. “There’s a lot of interest and excitement here. There’s deep tech talent and also enthusiasm for innovation. Geographically, it’s right where we need to be at the base of the Rockies.”
Now, MoonBikes has about 25 employees in Europe and 10 in Boulder.
Since setting up shop in Boulder, the company has built its sales from about $1 million annually to about $4 million.
“We are scaling up in North America,” Muron said.
Company leaders don’t plan to hit the brakes on their B2C efforts, but “we have tons of opportunities with resorts” to replicate the rental success MoonBikes enjoyed in Europe. In fact, the company has already inked its first such deal at Boyne Mountain Resort in Michigan.
Urban e-bike programs — such as those operated by Lime and Lyft that allow users to rent bikes with a tap on their cell phone and simply drop them at their destination for the next rider to grab — could serve as a model for a future MoonBikes revenue stream.
“That would be one of our ultimate goals,” Muron said. “…That would be an amazing achievement for the company.”
Muron said he thinks of himself first as an engineer and winter sports enthusiast, and a businessman second.
“I love mountains, I love snowboarding, I love tech, and I also love having fun,” he said. “I’ve always liked making stuff and inventing products… Building stuff made me an entrepreneur, rather than the opposite.”
Muron said he could have sold the technology and intellectual property behind MoonBikes, “but I wanted to see what was the life of an entrepreneur.”
Boulder is where he wants to give that entrepreneurial lifestyle a shot, and MoonBike is what he wants to build and sell. You could certainly pick worse locations. And you could certainly pick a less cool product.