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Branford’s Matt Schell has opened Spark Cycleworks, offering electric bikes that are unique to his company. Bikes are assembled at the Spark Cycleworks “lab” at 67 North Branford Road. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Spark Cyclework's commuter bike, the Firefly. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Schell demonstrates Spark Cyclework's fold-up commuter bike, Origami (see additional photos). Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Inside Spark Cycleworks' coffee bar and retail shop. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Schell handpicked these helmets for retail sale at Sparks Cycleworks. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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The doors to Spark Cycleworks officially opened on March 30, and the buzz is already building about Matt Schell’s unique Branford business. With plans to disrupt the status quo of big-name bike businesses—and reduce costs to consumers—Matt, 28, feels he’s got a product that delivers.
Using his expertise in international manufacturing, distribution, and shipping and as engineer/co-owner of Branford companies Spark Cycleworks and Differential Pressure Plus, Inc., Matt, together with mentor/co-owner Joe Gordon, has cracked a code they hope will break open the nascent east coast electric bike market.
“The problem with the big bike brands is that they have electric bikes that are way too expensive,” says Matt. “The lowest-cost electric bikes from the large manufacturers are about $3,000 and they go up to about $6,000 bucks very easily. For us, our entry level electric bike is $1,000 and the most expensive one is $1,800. And the reason that we’re able to do that is the distribution system.”
When electric bikes are purchased at a traditional local bike shop, “you basically have a chain of command that starts all the way from the manufacturer in China,” says Matt.
Spark Cycleworks uses inventory sent directly from the manufacturer, builds the bikes, and sells them to the consumer. They’ve cut out the middle man, or in the case of electric bikes, several middle men, as Matt explains.
“So the Chinese manufacturer sells the bikes to a large brand name. That large brand name then sells it to a national distributor, and the national distributor then sells it to a bike shop, and the bike shop then sells it to a customer. For us, I'm working directly with the manufacturer. And that's really important, especially now, with a 20 percent tariff on lithium batteries."
With the exception of the Tesla factory in the U.S., all lithium batteries are manufactured in China, Matt says.
“So take all the shipping to get that bike over, and then take all the tariffs and add those up, and there’s a reason why those larger brands have to sell them for $4,000,” he says.
All Spark Cycleworks electric bikes are built from components hand-picked by Matt to create a unique vehicle only available from his company. Bikes are assembled at the Spark Cycleworks “lab” at 67 North Branford Road, in an industrial park building shared with Differential Pressure Plus, Inc..
On March 30, Matt raised the lab’s overhead door for Spark Cyclework’s grand opening, welcoming curiosity seekers and electric bike enthusiasts who came for demo rides and details.
The current line of Spark Cycleworks is a sleek group of bikes mainly available in black or white, each powered by a lightweight, removable, rechargeable lithium battery that fully charges in four hours and comes with two built-in USB ports. The bikes can operate on pedal power or a rider can hit the throttle and go full electric.
“When we started to dive into who would buy an electric bike, we figured out there are two main categories of buyers,” says Matt.
“The first is what we call the sweaty T-shirt group—they want to commute to work, but they don’t want to arrive and have to take a shower afterward. With the electric bike, it has pedal-assist or the throttle [so] you can get to work just like you were on a motorcycle, if you want. And you can remove the batteries and charge it if you need to, and then you can bike home.”
As for the the second group, Matt feels they’re “people that have had maybe a knee surgery or used to love biking, but now they’re afraid they might get half way out and won’t be able to get back, or maybe they like to bike, but don’t like to climb hills! On an electric bike, you can pedal and have fun, and see a hill and coast up it.”
As an engineer, another goal for Matt was to simplify his bikes, including taking out “components we just don’t think are necessary,” says Matt. “One of the best examples is how the motor works. A lot of the big-bike brands use a motor that’s in the central crank area. It’s way more expensive, and I think they have way more moving parts. So to start, our idea was to keep it simple and more affordable for people; so we use motors that are in the rear, which is much more affordable, and it’s kind of newer style of how to do it.”
Spark’s commuter “city” bikes, which are compact, light, and efficient, deliver a top speed of 15 miles per hour and a battery range of 30 miles. One model, Origami, which weighs about 30 pounds, can be folded up and carried. Another compact bike, Pursuit, is also foldable. (There’s also a non-folding version of Pursuit.) Matt’s personal favorite compact bike is the pistachio-hued Firefly.
Spark’s traditionally sized bikes include the Breeze cruiser, which Matt expects will be the top-seller, and an adventure version, the Mountaineer. There’s also the heavy-duty Bandit; and two transports (think delivery bikes), Nomad and Sherpa. For these bikes top speeds average 20 miles per hour, with ranges up to 40 miles per charge.
Spark’s first electric scooter, Xiomi, costs $375 with a top end of 15 miles per hour and an 18-mile range.
In addition, the company sells and installs—in about 15 minutes—kits to convert traditional adult bikes to eBikes. The motor is affixed to a 26” front wheel; kits cost $375.
Based on current law, anyone with a valid Connecticut driver’s license can operate the bikes available from Sparks Cycleworks, Matt says.
“You do have to have a driver’s license to drive it, but you don’t need to register it and you don’t need license plates,” he explains.
With their small electric engines, the bikes are also okay to ride on trails, which is something that still catches some people by surprise, but was cleared up by law recently, says Matt.
All Spark Cycleworks products can also be viewed and purchased online at www.sparkcycleworks.com Custom orders (colors, larger batteries, etc.) can also be accommodated. Speaking of service, Spark Cycleworks will deliver its bicycles, completely assembled, anywhere in Connecticut, Matt notes.
“That’s a big deal for electric bikes,” he says. “Every other bike that you buy online is completely disassembled. For your average person, that’s kind of a daunting task, figuring how to put it together. You can come here for a test ride and not have to worry about how to get it into your car, if you don’t want to, because we will deliver a fully assembled bike anywhere in Connecticut.”
Matt expects most sales will happen online, but also envisions people hanging out at the lab’s coffee bar, enjoying some free Willoughby’s coffee, while waiting for a bike kit installation or a test ride. The industrial-modern lab space is also the showroom for the Spark Cycleworks line. It's small retail space features Spark logo apparel, a specially selected line of stylish helmets, and top-notch accessories, including a line of bike locks so secure, they come with a theft-reimbursement guarantee.
"Having a physical space is great,” says Matt, who also built an office/reception area, loft, and mechanic’s space into the site. “It’s going to be interesting to see how popular the space is. We call it our test lab, because I don’t want this to be so much a storefront as it is a place to come hang out with the team and take a test ride.”
To start, Spark Cycleworks’ lab will be open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Judging from the public response to the grand opening on March 30, things are going well, says Matt’s partner, Joe.
“We just had a very successful first day,” says Joe, Branford’s long-serving past chair of the town’s Economic Development Commission.
Back in Branford
Suffice it to say, Joe’s exceptionally proud of this exceptional young man. He notes that Matt’s an eagle scout, was an honor student at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), and “is on a Branford Town Hall board working on sustainability.”
Matt recently accepted Branford Economic Development Department Head Terry Elton’s invitation to help a committee align Branford with the Sustainable CT program. The voluntary program encourages municipalities to choose Sustainable CT actions, implement them, and earn points toward certification.
A Branford native (BHS Class of 2009), Matt says he’s happy to give back to his hometown. He and his wife, Miranda, also a Branford native (and a veterinary technician at Branford Veterinary Hospital) live in Short Beach.
As a student at VCU, Matt earned his B.S. in mechanical engineering and product innovation through VCU’s DaVinci Program.
“I got into it right when the program was starting to take shape. It allowed someone to focus on mechanical engineering but also get a degree in business and fine arts. So when I was in college, I was taking art classes and business classes,” says Matt.
Matt’s worked with Joe, who developed a special type of pressure gauge used to monitor commercial water systems, since he was a student at VCU. Joe took Matt in at his Branford company, Differential Pressure, as a college intern, then offered him a job after he graduated from VCU.
Eight years ago, looking for a succession plan as he approaches retirement, Joe offered Matt a leveraged buy-out deal that’s now in its fifth year, and things at Differential Pressure are going great, Matt says. With sales up 18 percent last year, the company invested in a new product, its first in about 15 years: a household-use water filter gauge that will be market-ready in the next two weeks.
“We are hoping to sell it between $15 and $20, so that allows us to get into what we call the Home Depot market,” says Matt, adding none of this would have been possible without Joe. “He’s an amazing mentor who started his own business in his backyard, and obviously a great mechanical engineer himself.”
In fact, it was Joe’s tinkering—and the desire to ride a bike in his mid-70s—that put them on the path to develop Spark Cycleworks, says Matt.
“Joe used to love biking, and he’s a tinkerer. So about a year ago, he actually built a couple different [motorized] bikes, and he brought one over and showed it to me,” says Matt.
As someone who rides motorcycles, Matt well remembers his first impressions.
“It was a really interesting thing, because electric bikes kind of have a gimmicky feel to them,” Matt says. “They’re not popular in the United States at all right now—on the west coast they’re growing, but on the east coast, nothing. So it kind of seems like, ‘Okay; you have an electric motor on that—why would anybody want that over a normal bicycle?’”
That’s pretty much what he recalls saying to Joe, Matt says, laughing.
“And he’s like, ‘I know, but you have to try this.’ So I took it for a test ride and I thought, ‘This is amazing!’” says Matt. “It’s a totally different feeling. The way I always describe it is the same feeling as when you’re in an airport, and you’re on one of those moving sidewalks, and you’re passing people to the side of you, and you just feel like you’re Superman—every step is three steps. That’s how this feels.”
Matt came back from that test ride “pretty much sold on the idea” of electric bikes.
“And then Joe and I said, ‘Why don’t we start looking into these?’ And from there, we figured out, well, I’ve been to China twice; I’ve gotten pretty good at working with Chinese manufacturers and suppliers, so we had that. And we have experience importing—that’s a huge thing—and experience shipping difficult things, which lithium batteries are -- extremely difficult. And then not only that, but when we started thinking deeper about it, Differential Pressure is a pretty green company. We make sure that people have clean drinking water. And so if we want to think about this on a larger scale, the bikes actually fall under this category of us wanting to develop sustainable technology.”
As for what’s next for Spark Cycleworks, where the tagline is “It’s Electric,” Matt feels the sky’s the limit.
“Not only is this sustainable technology; these bikes are just fun to ride. Everyone who rides one has the same reaction -- they’re genuinely happy to ride it,” says Matt. “I really think it will be tremendously successful. It could take a year or two to get traction, but we are fine with that. Our goal is to completely specialize in electric bikes, and then begin to progress up from there.”
Spark Cycleworks is located in Branford at 67 North Branford Road (entrance on left side of building). Initial lab hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays for test rides and eBike conversions. For more information, visit www.sparkcycleworks.com, call 203-415-5804, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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