Zero Motorcycles ramps up

If Neal Saiki gets his way, motorcycles of the future will sound more like remote controlled toy cars than monstrous metal Clydesdales.

Saiki is founder and CTO of Zero Motorcycles, which is building a line of electric motorcycles that aim to outperform their gas-guzzling big brothers on the dirt-bike circuit. Now he’s got more than $5.7 million to pursue that goal, thanks to a recent financing round from Invus, a private equity firm based in New York, according to a regulatory filing. It is the company’s first round of institutional funding.

Zero Motorcycles has already produced a handful of its electric dirt-bikes, which weigh about half of an equivalently powered internal combustion motorcycle—a real plus for outdoor riders who often have to haul their machines some distance before riding them. Its light weight, when combined with an electric motor that starts delivering power as soon the throttle is pulled, gives the bikes fierce acceleration, something that appeals to racers.

In addition, it lacks a clutch and gear system. The electric engine doesn’t need to shift gears which makes driving an electric bike as easy as driving an automatic transmission car.

There are setbacks. The bikes max out at 60 mph and a single charge lasts only about 40 miles. But for serious off-roaders, this doesn’t seem to be a concern.

Formative Ventures General Partner Dino Vendetti owns a pair of off-road bikes and a BMW street bike. On hearing of what Zero Motorcycles was working on, he said he’d love to try it, but probably wouldn’t invest in it.

Even though Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Zero Motorcycles is gaining traction and raising money, it may be at risk of getting passed by its competition, says Alloy Ventures Partner Doug Kelly.

Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki or any of the other Japanese manufacturers could build a competitive bike in less than a year and put you out of business immediately,” he says. “They could sell a cool electric bike at retail for 25% of your cost, even if they didn’t make money for 5 years.”

But that’s not what really bothers Kelly, an avid Ducati rider: “No guy is going to get laid pulling silently up to a bar with his electric bike smelling vaguely of ozone and electrical tape. That would not exactly be the bad-boy image a lot of riders so desperately try to cultivate.”