Freedom Electric Solutions: A Student Startup Story
The unassuming building at 111 Granby St. serves as the starting point for many young entrepreneurs and budding businesses, including Erin Desmond Marshall and his student startup company that builds custom electric bicycles and skateboards. As the CEO and sole employee of his own startup, Freedom Electric Solutions, Marshall shares the building, and a coffee pot that has seen too many long nights, with many other eager startups. Using only his passion for the mechanical and the help provided by the Hatch program, Marshall aims to turn a love of building electric bicycles into his own business in Norfolk.
The energy that Marshall, a junior, showed for his creations started before he even came to Norfolk. As a freshman in Tallahassee, Florida in 2013, Marshall sought out a way to get to and from school easier and, as an off road cyclist and hiker, a way to ease the work of getting uphill.
With no formal mechanical training and just a Dremel (a handheld metal-working tool), Marshall cobbled together an old skateboard with an electric motor he bought online to make it self-propelled. When it came time to test the skateboard, Marshall had no idea of what it would be capable of.
“[It was] terrifying. Absolutely terrifying… That thing gets up to about 28 miles per hour,” Marshall said. But that was only the “child setting” he tested with. Later, he described overtaking cars while traveling to and from school on his new creation, which became the envy of those on campus.
Coming to ODU, Marshall felt that he had a chance to put himself out there. “When I got [to ODU], that’s when the entrepreneurship started snapping in… I saw it as an opportunity to see what I could do with electric bikes… and I started reaching out at the Strome Center,” Marshall said.
During a networking event at the Strome Entrepreneurial Center, where he spoke of his custom electric bicycles and floated the idea that would eventually become Freedom Electric Solutions, he was introduced to the Hatch program. Curious, he attended a weekly event in Virginia Beach called “One Million Cups,” a national program developed by the Kauffman Foundation “designed to educate, engage, and connect entrepreneurs,” according to the website.
“It’s like a baby Shark Tank,” Marshall said.
After giving his presentation, and answering the questions that followed, Marshall was invited to join the Hatch program to develop his business and build his bicycles. The invitation was so overwhelming that he refrained from telling his parents, because he could not believe that such an opportunity could be possible, much less that it would come so easily.
At first, Marshall described his reaction to the invitation as “skeptical.” But once inside, and provided with mentorship and even marketing help, his opinion changed to “eye opening.” While not yet at the stage of having startup capital, Marshall was provided with help from people who got his company off the ground, and even the resources necessary to shoot a commercial.
Marshall introduced his in-progress creations. Both his electric bike and skateboard looked bulkier than their analog counterparts due to the addition of motors and battery packs. They looked like they were in made in a garage, yet possessed functional and strong components that allowed them to propel a rider smoothly and quickly through the urban landscape. They possessed a handmade charm, and Marshall alluded to custom-machined parts that would come in the future to make the bike look professional and sleek.
The bike itself is capable of a respectable distance of 20 or more miles, enough for traveling within a city or town, depending on how fast and hard the rider pushes it. Since the motor is housed directly on the wheel it does not interfere with the bike chain, and the bike can still be pedaled normally for an even greater range.
Marshall emphasized that his bikes are more than capable of achieving high speeds to rival mopeds, scooters and cars. But his bikes will be built with a limiter for safety reasons, and so that the rider does not need to obtain a special license.
I was allowed to try his own personal bike, equipped with a makeshift phone “dashboard” and a custom Bluetooth speaker system for riding enjoyment. Previously, I had no real experience or training with anything that involved a throttle. But his bike was simple and easy to learn. With a light push to get going and a gentle turn of the single throttle, the bike took over and I was sailing around campus.
14Not only was the bike simple to operate, the ride was smooth and always within control, even when pushed to higher speeds. The electric motor produced a low, quiet purr that sped the bike along. With no engine noise to drown out the rush of wind, there was a peaceful power to the experience. The demo rides were more than evidence that the bike was a must-have for any student. Marshall’s creation was solid, speedy, quiet and easily accessible. With a charging time of three hours in a wall plug, it could be used any day. But with the custom fast charger that Marshall was developing, the bike could be charged in an astounding 20 minutes.
Marshall’s shop and his bikes brought to mind the likes of Jobs and Wozniak, or the Wright brothers. Despite the change in technology and education, Marshall belongs to the group of people driven to create with their own two hands and whatever happens to be lying around them. Their first builds were rough, but they worked and were made with careful attention and many trials. In time, Marshall will also be one of those people who can take nothing but passion and drive, and turn them into something great.