As a 19-year-old philosophy student in Paris, Jens Martin Skibsted had a watershed moment when the bicycle protest against cars he was riding in came to a sudden halt. The roadblock? A motorcycle demonstration. "I realized the absurdity of it," says the Danish entrepreneur, who turns 40 this year. "People are not going to change because an activist goes around shouting."
So Skibsted took a different route. Instead of telling people they should get out of their cars, why not make them want to show off their cool bikes? In 1998, with this in mind, he founded Biomega, a Copenhagen-based company that makes high-design bikes for urban riders. With big-name designers like Marc Newson, Karim Rashid and Ross Lovegrove, Biomega has pioneered a distinctively industrial look with clever innovations like a lock built into a bicycle's frame, which renders a stolen bike defunct, and all-over glow-in-the-dark paint to keep cyclists safe at night. It has borrowed aluminum-bonding methods from the aerospace industry and built a greener bicycle out of bamboo. In 2003, Biomega partnered with Puma to make a line of fashion-forward bicycles. Several members of the Danish royal family ride the award-winning bikes. In 2008, New York City's Museum of Modern Art added the foldable Puma bike to its design collection.
The hipster approach has paid off. Sales of Biomega bicycles priced at $1,300 to $7,000 ($600 to $1,200 for the Puma models) have grown 30% a year since 2000. They are far outpacing bicycle sales as a whole, which are flat in the U.S., where Biomega sells about 20% of its bikes, and in Europe, which accounts for 70% of its sales.
With his "furniture for urban locomotion," Skibsted, who once dreamed of being a poet and is fascinated with cyberpunk culture, wants nothing less than to help usher in a new era in city commuting. "We are in a format war between the bicycle and the car," says Skibsted, sitting in Biomega's bright, old-fashioned Copenhagen office, surrounded by slick-looking bikes. "Will it be VHS or Betamax? Is Microsoft or Linux going to win?" As he tells it, Biomega's mission is to beat out the car as the city slicker's wheeled vehicle of choice. "Our market is not the bike market. It's the urban-mobility market," he says. "Just competing with other bicycle makers that's not being green."
This isn't as crazy as it sounds, particularly in European biking cities like Copenhagen, where 36% of commuters get to work on bikes. And, argues Skibsted, as more people move to cities according to U.N. estimates, the world's urban population will nearly double by 2050 getting around already clogged city streets in cars will become less and less tenable.
High gas prices could help make his dream a reality. Cities like New York one of Biomega's biggest markets in the Americas, along with Mexico City and Santiago, Chile have added miles of bike lanes in recent years as fuel costs have gone up. "Commuting and utility use is a market that seems to be growing," said Fred Clements, executive director of the National Bicycle Dealers Association in the U.S. "It's an area where we're hoping to see more happen. It's green, it's clean, it's a good way to get exercise by accident." What's cooler than that?