Web helps electric skateboard zap to life

jholland@modbee.comFebruary 15, 2013 

— Two young entrepreneurs have electrified the skateboard world from the depths of the old ammo plant.

Ben Forman and Geoff Larson founded Intuitive Motion, which makes battery-powered skateboards.

They and five part-time employees have turned out about 600 boards since October and have a waiting list for about

200 more.

It's not the biggest employer in the former Riverbank Army Ammunition Plant, but it just may be the coolest.

"Holy Krakatoa! I love it!" said one review posted on Kickstarter.com, a website that helped Forman and Larson raise $278,767 from supporters for the launch last year.

Electric skateboards controlled by hand-held devices already were on the market. Intuitive Motion came up with a version, called a ZBoard, that uses a pair of footpads connected to electronic sensors.

"You lean forward to go and lean backward to stop," Forman said during a tour of the business last week.

The boards have earned mentions in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Wired and other media. Forman said the company could produce as many as 5,000 this year.

The founders, both 26, got the idea while studying mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California. They had noticed that many Los Angeles streets were too uneven for conventional skateboards.

"This started as a class project in the spring semester of 2009," Forman said. "We basically tried to build this weight-sensing electric skateboard for our project."

Larson is from Sacramento, Forman from Palo Alto. They heard about the Riverbank site from Larson's father.

They make two models. The Classic sells for $649, can go up to 15 mph and runs for up to five miles on a charge. The Pro, at $949, has a top speed of 17 mph and a 10-mile range. The charge takes five hours from a wall outlet.

The boards can go up moderate hills, but the makers do not recommend jumps or other tricks. They weigh too much, anyway, because of the motors and batteries. They are not meant for riders younger than 18.

ZBoards have been sold online to people in 15 countries. They are not in retail stores, but Forman said that could happen this year.

He rode out to greet The Modesto Bee's reporter and photographer on one of his boards, traveling a few hundred feet to the plant gate.

"We mostly sell it as short-range transportation, a way to get someplace that's too far to walk and too close to drive," he said.

The company assembles components purchased from several vendors. They include batteries from Fremont, plastic from Connecticut and wooden decks from Los Angeles. Trophy Works of Modesto engraves the metal boxes that house the batteries and electronics.

Intuitive Motion uses a small part of one of the many cavernous buildings at the Claus Road plant. It opened to supply troops in World War II and employed more than 2,000 people at its peak during the Vietnam War.

The city took control on a no-cost lease in 2010 and has turned the site into the Riverbank Industrial Complex. It has 31 tenants with a work force of close to 250 people, although the latter number fluctuates, said Debbie Olson, executive director of the city's Local Redevelopment Authority.

She said the skateboard makers are one of several tenants using the complex as an "incubator" for their ideas.

"We're proud that they are a part of this facility," Olson said, "and we're pleased to be able to help them with their growth."

Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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