Hanna's Dream Ride in ELF

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A 73-year--old woman German-American woman had a different way of giving thanks yesterday. She's taking a two-year cross-country trip to show her thankfulness to the country that embraced her after World War Two. 

And it isn’t any normal road trip—she’s riding an ELF, the part-bicycle, part-solar and electric-powered alternative vehicle made by the Durham startup Organic Transit

A cross-country bike trip has been a wish of Hanna Elshoff's since she immigrated to the U.S. over 50 years ago. The Minnesota woman wanted to take the voyage to demonstrate to Americans just how thankful she is for our nation's help in defeating the Nazi regime during WWII, and for providing a supportive home for her post-war. 

She hadn't made the trip before because it wasn’t feasible to travel thousands of miles alone on a bike when she was 20 years old and the feasibility didn’t improve as she aged. But she revisited the idea once she discovered the ELF. 

With the ELF (pictured above), she can comfortably travel as many miles per day as she wants, while storing her things and feeling safer than on a normal bicycle. She plans to meet and get the signature of President Jimmy Carter—her inspiration for becoming a U.S. citizen—on this week's leg of the journey. 

Elshoff’s trip, says Rob Cotter, is a perfect example of the versatility of the ELF, and part of the reason why, after three years on the market, he expects sales to really take off during the holiday season and into 2016. 

Cotter calls the ELF a, “democratic form of transportation,” because it’s perfect for any age. He knows of people aged 14-94 traveling around in the vehicle he designed. He notes it can be used by people like Elshoff to travel long distances or can be used to go short distances by those who cannot legally drive motorized vehicles due to disabilities. To date, customers have covered over 1.2 million miles in ELF's. 

Rob Cotter gave a talk about alternative transportation and climate change at TEDxDuke in May 2015. Credit: TEDx Talks

It also has huge marketing potential for businesses who wish to haul billboard signs—as exemplified by Performance Bicycle’s use of the ELF to haul an advertising billboard at the recent El Tour de Tuscon. Element Raw Juice is also using an ELF to deliver its juices around Durham.

All of those things are contributing to Organic Transit’s move from start-up to scale-up. 

Since ExitEvent last checked in on Organic Transit, there’s a board of directors in place. New innovations and improvements for the vehicle have been made and even more are coming next year. Sales have doubled, and thanks to a new manufacturing and distribution partnership with a premiere factory in Columbia, S.C., the company can finally meet demand and increase sales even more. 

The biggest forthcoming change for Organic Transit is the new partnership with Flextronics (recently renamed Flex), which is known for its work designing and making smartphones and other electronics. In recent years, it has repositioned to work with leading brands like Nike (aiding in footwear innovation), Ford (as cars become smarter) and FitBit. The Internet of Things is a special focus, and ELF can be considered that with its various sensors and an app that provides details about a ride and the energy saved. 

Prior to the partnership, all 650 ELFs that have been sold so far were made by hand by the Organic Transit team in Durham. The team has also managed the complicated task of shipping them to 11 countries, including Fiji and New Zealand. The new partnership allows Organic Transit to scale production to meet demand. 

Cotter’s team hasn’t been able to build ELFs fast enough since launch—50 people are on a waiting list today and the wait for an ELF is at least three months.

While some ELFs will still be manufactured in Durham, most of the production and shipping will occur in the Flextronics plant in Columbia which will begin producing around 100 ELFs a month in early 2016. Cotter has spent the last few months there fine-tuning the process to ensure quality is the same. 

Soon, he’ll start a true sales and marketing effort for the first time. Cotter plans to hire sales agents and launch marketing campaigns in order to quadruple business next year. All sales to date have come in through the website, in person or word of mouth. And even those have been more than enough for the small production team. 

Cotter is hiring for other positions too, beefing up the existing staff of 20 in anticipation of scaling production. New models with over 300 updates and “wonderful advancements” that improve the vehicle’s ride and efficiency are also now available.

Cotter is seeking investment, and particularly from investors who embrace Organic Transit's mission and vision. Investors Circle and private investors have funded the business so far. 

Much like Elshoff, Cotter and Organic Transit’s road has been a long one. The growing pains and inability to meet demand has limited the company’s ability to grow. But sometimes taking the long-view pays off. In Elshoff’s case, she might soon get to meet the man who inspired her journey, and in a first-of-its-kind vehicle. 

For Cotter, Organic Transit might soon become more than an outlier in the transportation industry. With the new production partnership, vehicle improvements and new staff positions, he hopes to become a leader in the alternative transportation space. 

As Cotter says, “(Organic Transit) is a company that disrupts the transportation industry pretty significantly.”