UK startup BackPedal uses GPS tracking to reclaim stolen e-bikes

New e-bike models keep coming off production lines with GPS tracking enabled, with the idea that such tech will deter theft and help you recover your bike if it gets stolen. But how exactly does knowing roughly where your bike is going to help you get it back?

“Customers don’t care if they can track their bike after a theft,” James Dunn, co-founder of e-bike recovery startup BackPedal, told TechCrunch. “Having a GPS tracker actually doesn’t enable their e-bike recovery. They think, ‘Well, the police won’t do anything. I don’t want to go get my bike back. So what’s the point?’”

In the hands of a single civilian who’s furious about their stolen property, perhaps GPS isn’t very useful. But in the hands of BackPedal, e-bike recovery seems like it might actually be possible.

The UK-based startup offers e-bike owners a monthly subscription service, which includes recovery of the e-bike and, more recently, insurance via Sundays Insurance, one of the largest cycle insurers in the UK. BackPedal says it has a 90% recovery rate, but the insurance provides a security net for the bikes that can’t be brought back.

The subscription starts at £8.99 per month but quickly climbs based on the value of a customer’s e-bike.

Such a product will become increasingly relevant as e-bike adoption, and thus e-bike theft, continues to rise. One cycling insurance specialist, Cycleplan, has seen e-bike insurance policies rise 292% between 2019 and 2022, according to a report from Cycling Industry News. But that doesn’t include the recovery operations, which the founders say is what most people want.

In their pre-business launch research, BackPedal found that 76% of potential customers would rather have their own stolen bike returned to them quickly, rather than going through the process of filing an insurance claim and getting a replacement bike.

“GPS has been done at scale,” said Dunn. “Nailing the recovery operations is the hard bit that hasn’t been done at scale.”

While BackPedal says its service is offered nationwide, most of the startup’s operations are in London and Cambridge, as well as along the UK’s southeast and south coast. One of BackPedal’s commercial fleet customers from the UK also wants BackPedal to deploy in Amsterdam, which will provide an opportunity to test scaling the recovery model in another country.

That model involves working with both the police and a network of recovery agents. The recovery agents are usually ex-police officers or security professionals, contractors who have their own security businesses, who know the lay of the land and have relationships with the local police.

Or sometimes it’s just Dunn and his co-founder Richard White pounding the pavement in search of bikes.

BackPedal has a remote operation center where someone receives the customer’s request, tracks down the bike on the back end, manages the recovery agents and liaises with the local police.

The agents will do anything from knocking on the door and confronting the potential thief to hopping over fences and stealing the bike back.

“They assess the situation, and if it’s not dangerous, we tell them to go for it and retrieve it,” White told TechCrunch. “If it’s dangerous, we tell them to wait for the police.”

Dunn said BackPedal has had success enlisting the help of police, despite the popular opinion that cops probably have better things to do with their time.

“It’s because we’re not private citizens; we’re actually BackPedal, a professional e-bike recovery firm, and we recover high-value stolen bikes,” he said. “We’re learning how we can manage the police and part of that is around not expecting things to happen straightaway.”

BackPedal follows a process to get the police involved. Once a theft report comes in, the startup then reports it immediately to the police, sharing all available evidence like the type of bike, how it’s being tracked and where it is.

“We let them know we’re professional. We’re not emotionally attached. We’re resourced and putting our people on the ground, and we’re not going away,” said Dunn. “Police do have a statutory duty to help with stuff like this.”

Ultimately, Dunn (whose parents were police officers) said bike thefts are a thorn in the side of communities, and he wants BackPedal to get to the point where it’s a trusted partner to the police.

Where the tech comes into e-bike recovery

Dunn says aside from building an on-demand network of recovery agents and integrating that with each police jurisdiction, BackPedal’s main challenge is getting the hardware right.

“What is the hardware that enables reliable recovery? How does that change by vehicle type and use case and geography?”

As e-bikes become smarter, they’re increasingly being built with IoT, GPS and Bluetooth trackers. Bikes with GPS from BikeTrax, IoT Ventures and BikeFinder are on the company’s approved tracker list because they are integrated within the bike (and thus can charge using the bike’s battery), have a backup battery, have proven coverage and can be third-party access-enabled.

For bikes that don’t have GPS installed, BackPedal offers an installation service — £225 for a professional fitting, or £150 for a fit at home guided by the team over WhatsApp.

GPS can only get you so close to a bike. It might tell you what apartment building it’s in, but can’t get you to the actual unit. That’s why BackPedal is also using additional beacon technology, which acts as a lighthouse that pings a signal every second via Bluetooth.

“It basically means we can see behind walls, and that’s something nobody is doing,” said White, noting that the signal starts to be picked up within 50 meters of the bike’s location via a smartphone.

One of the challenges for BackPedal as it grows is that the thieves will start to get better at what they do, so the startup will have to consistently deploy better hardware.

A focus on scaling the model

Since January, BackPedal has grown at an average of nearly 20% per month, the founders said. Today the startup has 500 customers, but the goal is to reach 1,000 subscribers in the next five months.

Adding the insurance was an important step for BackPedal in offering a more complete product that puts the startup in a better position to raise seed funding, a process BackPedal will consider starting in six months after growing the business more.

In the meantime, the company is working on healthy and sustainable growth. Learning each new market as it comes up, sourcing recovery agents and forming relationships with local police is essential to the process and will take time. Scaling will require a streamlined way to enter new markets, more GPS trackers on e-bikes, and continued work on the back-end software to manage the whole enterprise, said Dunn.