by Pete Mazzaccaro
Chestnut Hill Resident and self-described serial entrepreneur Brian Powell’s Eureka moment came as he was struggling to pedal his bicycle home out of Valley Green in September of 2015.
Powell had taken his bike to the city during the visit of Pope Francis, an event he thought it would be nice to experience, particularly if he could avoid driving into town. But the ride out of Valley Green, up Springfield Avenue was more than he bargained for.
I was riding back and got to the hill [on Valley Green Road] and I was gassed,” Powell recalled. “I was half way up it when some guy flies by on an e-bike. So I whistled to the guy and called him back. I said, ‘What the hell is this thing?’
It was an electric bike that the rider had built with his brother in their garage. They had taken an old mountain bike, installed a motor and a battery.
“He let me ride it and it was then I had this holy s— moment,” Powell said. “It was unbelievable. With a bike like this, I’d never have to worry about the hill again.”
But Powell wasn’t satisfied with simply buying himself a new electric bike – e-bike in current parlance. He decided it was a business opportunity. He did his research and liked what he found.
“This is going to be a $24 billion dollar industry by 2025,” Powell said
So what better way to be part of it than start his own company – Junto Bicycles.
Powell wasn’t new to starting companies. In the last 20 years he’s been involved in a number of startup ventures, most in the health food industry, catering to the Whole Foods crowd. His current company: Powell and Mahoney cocktail mixers. It advertises quality ingredients and can be found at high-end food stores, including Weavers Way Co-op.
Powell got to work on his plan and had two great strokes of luck as he was putting it all together. The first is that he connected with a neighbor, Sam Ebert. A hill native and GFS grad who worked as a teenager at Wissahickon Cyclery went to work as Powell’s main mechanic. Another connection put him in touch with Mike Tonkinson, a design wiz who helped design everything from the company’s website to its logo.
With Powell’s start up knowhow, the company was formed, taking its name from the group of radical free thinkers Ben Franklin assembled in pre-revolutionary Philadelphia. A prototype was then built with the street surfaces of Philadelphia at the forefront.
“We designed a city commuter from the street up,” Powell said. “We built with trolley tracks, cobblestones and potholes in mind. The roads are messed up here, but this bike just eats them. It has oversized wheels and high pneumatics. Doesn’t need a fancy shock absorber.”
A ride on the prototype is enough to make a believer in e-bikes out of anyone who likes to bike even a little bit. The motor, with five adjustable settings, amplifies pedal pushes. At its highest setting, a very leisurely turn of the crank can set the Junto off up to 25 mph. One could zoom up a steep hill with the same effort required to coast on a flat shore town boardwalk.
With bikes up for preorder on the company site, juntobikes.com, Powell said customers will have the bikes delivered to their door pre-setup, needing only the front wheel slipped into the fork. The reason for the customer direct model, Powell said, is to keep prices down.
“Our competitors, Trek and Specialized, are asking $5,000 for their bikes,” he said. “Ours is $2220.
Powell is optimistic about Junto’s chances. He’s hoping brisk sales will lead to a factory in Philadelphia.
“We anticipate we’re going to sell about 10,000 bikes a year by 2019,” he said. “My whole life, all I wanted to do is bring Philadelphia along for a ride, and I think I’m about to do that. This is going to be a marquee brand in the city.”
For more information, visit juntobikes.com and look for them at the Harry Potter Festival this Saturday, Oct. 20
Pete Mazzaccaro can be reached at 215-248-8802 or firstname.lastname@example.org