Smart Grass is not the typical bike manufacturer. And even though they make unique bamboo bikes, they aren’t typical bamboo bike manufacturers either: they offer bike building workshops so customers can custom build their own bikes and incorporate new smart technologies. Some might think that combining natural elements and these technologies seems contradictory. Not Smart Grass. We sat down with founders Oswald Wieser and Fazlul Hoque. Read on to find out why.
Who are Oswald and Fazlul and what have you done professionally before Smart Grass?
Fazlul: Oswald Wieser and I (Fazlul Hoque) are both Software Engineers from SAP who work(ed) in the area of Internet of Things (IoT) which deals with connectivity and management of complex machinery such as aircrafts and automotive vehicles. Outside professional life we both enjoy creative and diverse projects - for example Oswald builds his own wrist watches and I like to make automatas.
Where did you grow up? Did that influence your interest in bicycles/technology?
Oswald: I was born and raised at the lake of Konstanz in southern Germany close to the Alps, studied Sociology and Ethnology in Heidelberg and Freiburg and later computer science in Karlsruhe. Perhaps the difference between these majors already indicates that I like to view things from different perspectives. In the 35 years of my professional career in IT I always found my perspective to be very helpful.
Fazlul: I was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh - a land where bamboo is plentiful. I have known this excellent material for a long time and have seen first hand applications of bamboo in different forms. I studied design in Stockholm, Sweden where I discovered the elegance of simplicity and minimalism. I am now living in Mannheim, Germany, the birth region of bicycles. And I am working in one of the high-tech software companies which gives me the technology perspective. The combination of these experiences has given me the foundation needed to build smart bamboo bicycles.
How did you come up with the idea for Smart Grass?
After both of us finished building our bamboo bicycles we realized that it was such a fulfilling experience that we wanted to share it with everyone. There was no opportunity in the Heidelberg/Mannheim area in Germany to build bamboo bikes when we started, and we thought doing workshops would be a good way to bring the right people together and create a community. Every time we teach somebody how to build a bicycle frame there are new experiences and ideas built in.
On the other hand, working in IT provides a lot of examples that nowadays in every “Thing.” Smart features become ubiquitous- a natural material like bamboo and built-in electronics are not contradictory at all. Making bamboo bikes smart was our objective from the very beginning. So we decided to start Smart Grass Bicycles.
Are you both cyclists yourself? If so, what is your favorite part about cycling? Favorite place to ride?
Fazlul: We are both casual cyclists - that means we ride often but we do not consider ourselves professional riders or competitors. Sometimes we ride to get to work and at other times we just enjoy the euphoria of riding a handmade bamboo bicycle.
Oswald: Your question brings back some almost lost memories. When I was 14, I needed a new bicycle and wanted a race bike. My parents totally disagreed. From their point of view I did not need a fragile thing like that but I refused to ride any other. I wanted a stylish and sporty one and finally got my sky blue Mercier race bike. I only had to compromise by putting mudguards on it.
Bamboo is an extraordinary material for a bicycle frame. It is very tough and it is very light weight. The fibres in the cross section of the bamboo stems are arranged such that there is a maximum strength against bending, breaking and impact. It is also a very good shock and vibration absorber. In Asian regions, it is used for making bridges and as scaffolding materials, even in the construction of skyscrapers. Bamboo has withstood the test of time and is one of the best eco-friendly materials for building a bicycle.
Why did you decide to offer frame building workshops? Has there been a lot of interest?
At Smart Grass Bicycles we believe its not only the product that matters but its the overall "experience" of a product, which includes the build process. Building something with your own hands gives an emotional attachment to it and the joy of finishing a product is an immense pleasure. We have experienced it ourselves and that’s what we want to pass on. So we offer frame building workshops.
Workshops are also a very good way to constantly innovate. Each participant has likes and dislikes and brings along new ideas. As a result we never build the same bike twice and improve design, tools and building processes. Based on that, we recently got nominated for the German Design Award 2017 and participated in the competition for the 200 year anniversary bike in Mannheim where in 1817 the bicycle was invented by Karl Drais.
Can you explain the marriage of eco-friendly materials combined with smart technology? Is one more important than the other? Are buyers looking for both when shopping for a bike?
The choice of eco-friendly frame material versus the type of technology on a bike are two distinct issues. They are not necessarily one more important than the other or even dependent on each other. However, we think a combination of these two can lead to the ideal smart bicycle of the 21st century. Given that, its also important to mention that this combination heavily depends on the personal preference of individuals. We have seen individuals who want to keep their bicycle as simple and minimalistic as possible with no technology what-so-ever and others who are more open to trying out e-bikes and what modern smart technology can offer.
Why is it important to incorporate "a touch of technology" into bikes?
Using a smart phone while cycling has become very common. Navigation and fitness apps for cyclists are available and making a call or listening to music while cycling is something you can see everywhere. On the other hand e-bikes also bring a lot of additional electronic components. For us it is essential to build bamboo bicycle frames that allow the integrated use of these technological components and without redundancy of features and devices.
What role do bikes play in the future of connected mobility? How will connecting the bike and the smartphone change cycling?
Connectivity is about the mechanisms and the possibility of getting the right information at the right time to the individual cyclist. Communication to other people and provisioning of information when and wherever needed is essential. The proof is quite simple: If you have to stop your ride because you are disconnected or can’t operate your devices while riding you are facing an integration or usability issue. Of course it is the cyclist's choice whether he wants to be online or not, but bikes should provide the capabilities to be connected and provide a bicycle-adequate experience how to do that.
“Connectivity is about the mechanisms and the possibility of getting the right information at the right time”
What is your favorite "smart device" and what is it used for? How does it improve your experience?
We like smart devices that combine the most essential functionalities needed by bikers in one simple and easy to use package. COBI is great because it is built as an open system and based on standards like CAN Bus our Bluetooth. One can clearly see it is much more than the extension of a e-bike controller. Putting the smartphone in the center makes it a universal communication device for the cyclist and integrates the bikes components. This makes it so very interesting for us.