Where Are They Now: Pedaling Into The Future With PedalCell

Little more than a year ago, the founders of PedalCell proudly stood amidst a shower of falling balloons as they were declared the winner of the 2022 BIG Ideabounce pitch contest at Washington University’s Olin Business School. Their startup earned the top $50,000 prize in a competition that had drawn 167 entrepreneurial teams from all over the world.

“My heart was just in my stomach,” recalls co-founder David Harper, as he and his teammates waited to hear if PedalCell would win among the three finalists. “I was just dying. If one of the other teams won, I just wanted to appreciate how far we came and enjoy the moment. When we heard it was PedalCell, it felt surreal. It was just an amazing moment to experience with the team. It definitely went on my Instagram.”

Adds co-founder Adam Hokin, who serves as CEO, “You see the balloons overhead and you get an idea of what it will feel like when they drop. And when the balloons actually fall, it has a very special sensation. Within 30 seconds to a minute, we had this big check in our hands.”

THE 2022 BIG IDEABOUNCE WINNERS: ‘GROWTH HAS BEEN VERY SOLID’

Doug Villhard of Washington University’s Olin Business School

A year later, the team reports in a Fireside Chat (see above video) that PedalCell has made solid progress, increasing sales and expanding overseas so that more customers can take advantage of the startup’s bicycle power source that mounts in minutes on nearly all bike designs. For a long-distance cyclist, the device can power mobile phones and lights on an adventure trip through the wilderness or the desert.

“The business has been going great,” says Hokin. “We have made many serious strides in the business, and growth has been very solid.”

As Doug Villhard, academic director for entrepreneurship at Washington University, puts it, the PedalCell team took away the top prize by meeting the three Ts of startup success: They put together the right team, with proven technology and showed they had already made traction with their idea. “They had distribution and manufacturing and had solved early technical problems in getting the device to work,” says Villhard. “They also developed a technology that could be deployed for there uses to grow the company in the future.”

GETTING OUT THE JITTERS BEFORE THE BIG IDEABOUNCE PITCH

Their business idea was pitched by Hokin, now 26, who graduated from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in 2019 along with CTO Vishaal Mali, 25, who invented the company’s core intellectual property and is a graduate of Northwestern University’s McCormick Engineering School in computer and electrical engineering, and Harper, 24, who also earned his degree in mechanical engineering from Northwestern and handles marketing for the firm.

The night before the competition on the Olin Business School campus in St. Louis, Harper remembers the team’s final rehearsals for the pitch. “Adam and I filmed each other in our hotel room the day before,” he notes, trying to perfect the pace of their presentation as well as the body language of each team member. “We were kind of nervous trying to get those jitters out.” At times, they would go outside to walk around the Washington University campus for a break.

What did they do with the $50,000 in prize money? It was largely spent to expand the business. Some money went into marketing support in trade journals and magazines that target their potential end users. Some of it was spent analyzing Instagram followers so PedalCell could customize and make more effective its advertising spend on Facebook. An engineering intern was brought on to work on future projects.

THE BIG IDEABOUNCE COMPETITION: ‘YOU FEEL A LITTLE BIT LIKE A MOVIE STAR’

Both agree the competition itself was valuable in moving their business forward. “One of the things that has been beneficial is that when you present yourself to the judges you start to think in a detailed way about what you want to do,” says Harper.

“We used it as an opportunity to test assumptions and get advice from the judges,” says Hokin. “We asked ourselves, ‘Does our narrative make sense?’ and ‘Does our solution line up?’ We used it as an opportunity to get a very critical voice on our business.”

In any case, the team will always remember the moment that Villhard declared PedalCell the winner, and the balloons fell from the ceiling to cap the celebration.

“You feel a little bit like a movie star through the whole thing,” laughs Hokin.

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