Zero Motorcycles founder plans flying feat

Santa Cruz Sentinel
SCOTTS VALLEY — Just five years after setting up a small Scotts Valley shop showcasing his electric motorcycle innovations, Neal Saiki, who co-founded Zero Motorcycles with his wife, Lisa, retired last week from his post as chief technology officer and company evangelist of the 68-person international company to pursue a decades-old passion.

The 44-year-old aeronautical engineer, who has a long history of successful technological inventions, from mountain bike suspensions and medical devices to rock climbing technology, is designing a pedal-powered helicopter that he hopes will stay aloft long enough to garner the $250,000 prize in the Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition.

The Sikorsky prize has eluded for 31 years the most innovative engineers — including Saiki, who managed in 1989 to head up the first team to get a human-powered helicopter aloft. Saiki said last week that he expects to begin testing his design in six months and will be ready to win the prize in a year.

If he does, he will be the first to solve the aeronautical equation of how to maintain flight for one minute and reach a height of three meters on human power and ingenuity alone. His last record-breaking feat, while he was a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was to get a human-powered machine to rise nearly eight inches off the ground for just more than seven seconds.

Five years after Saiki’s team’s machine lifted off the ground, a Nihon University professor in Japan, Akira Naito, managed to design a machine that reached the same altitude and stayed up for nearly 20 seconds.

“Really, it’s one of the last aviation achievements,” said Saiki, who will continue to serve on the board of directors of Zero Motorcycles. “Almost everything in aviation has been done. They’re just going faster and further now.”

When he is not playing with his four children, Saiki will be working primarily out of his Scotts Valley home garage, which is filled with precisely cut foam pieces stacked one atop the other in long boxes. Because he does so much of the design on computer, he doesn’t expect to see the actual machine until it is almost ready to be tested.

Saiki is protective of what he describes as revolutionary technology that is the culmination of more than a decade of calculations relating to bits and pieces of the lift equation. It is, he says, a combination of aerodynamics and structural design. He expects to eventually assemble a team to help, then recruit the best Olympic-class bicycle rider available to pedal the vehicle with enough force to create the necessary vertical lift.

In 2009, Sikorsky Aircraft, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp., increased the prize money amount from $20,000 to $250,000, which boosted applicant interest but still failed to inspire a success.

“It’s a race to see who can do this,” he said. It would probably take someone with significant corporate resources to outpace him, he said. The effort is getting some sponsorship from Zero. “I have the most experience of human-powered helicopters than anybody in the world. There’s a lot of value in having worked on many generations of helicopters.”

Kay Brackins, deputy director of the Washington-based American Helicopter Society International, which created the contest, said only three attempts have been officially witnessed. An Argentine team, she said, is hoping to set up an official test soon.

It is, however, about a lot more than the prize money, Saiki said, noting that the six-figure pot will probably just cover expenses. Winning the Sikorsky prize could mean landing a spot in the Smithsonian Institution, a long-held dream Saiki said.

Last week, while his wife Lisa was nursing their newborn, the fourth child in the family, Sakai noted that family was the key reason for his retirement from the company at this time.

“We have fully filled out the management team. It’s time to not be involved in the day-to-day operations.”

Zero Motorcycles was incorporated in 2006 as Electricross. In the early days, the couple worked round the clock, taking shifts caring for their newborn, sweeping the floors, and creating a marketing plan around the new technologies, including a viable longer-lasting battery system. The phenomenon of green technology was gaining traction, but electric motorcycles were still novel and not considered real alternatives to gas-powered dirt and street bikes.

He handled engineering and manufacturing, answered phones and technical questions, and dealt with sales. Lisa handled accounting, marketing, made fliers and window displays, and, with a handful of employees, they both did everything else they could to carve out a nascent niche in the electric vehicle market. Despite the long hours, the couple said they tried to have fun.

“He was very courageous in starting the company when he did,” said Gene Banman, chief executive officer of Zero Motorcycles. “Those were the early days of the electrical vehicle business. He and Lisa basically risked it all to start this company in their garage.”

Saiki designed a battery management system that boosted the vehicle’s power. “He was able to basically design every piece of the motorcycle himself,” Banman said.

The legacy that Saiki leaves behind is the entrepreneurial spirit and focus on technological innovation, “the legacy of jumping on the latest technology and bringing it to market,” Banman said. “He sort of pushed us in directions that sometimes were uncomfortable, but moved us along very quickly.”

At his goodbye party last week, the company presented Saiki with a Drift bike, the electric dirt bike that launched the company, but this one was built with Saiki’s latest prototype battery technology.

“He was excited,” Banman said. “He was really glad to get that bike.”

This article appeared here.

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