Envision what you think a big-time CEO looks, sounds, and acts like in your head, and you’ll likely conjure someone slick wearing a power suit yelling into a cellphone. They’re players, folks who’d step over their mother to get ahead and will trample your unalienable rights for a dollar. That’s not Stefan Ytterborn, CEO of Swedish electric motorcycle company CAKE, though.
Instead, Ytterborn reflects someone you’d likely find at REI or your local co-op, composting his compostables or detailing how he’s just converted his house to solar. That’s not a knock, mind you, it's just his energy. He comes off as genuine and down to Earth—a man who’s both driven to see the electric revolution for motorcycles and last-mile transit, and someone you’d crack open a lager with after a long day of riding.
Ytterborn started CAKE in 2017 out of a desire to bring electric technology to back-country biking. Since then, CAKE has become a minor, but growing, player in the electric motorcycle space. In doing so, CAKE has developed dirt bikes, last-mile delivery bikes, and more. The company has also partnered with the likes of Volvo’s Polestar, and African anti-poaching groups. Recently, the company even partnered with Vattenfall, a European energy corporation aiming at aiding the world in going fossil fuel-free within a generation.
Ytternborn has always had an entrepreneurial slant. He started a handful of companies throughout the years, but apart from CAKE, his most successful was POC (piece of cake) Sports. Piece of Cake (I'm seeing a pattern here -ed.) specializes in helmets for skiers, snowboarders, cyclists, and others. Its mission statement is “Protect lives and reduce the consequences of accidents for athletes and anyone inspired to be one.” It’s easy to see a throughline between the two companies. Since 2017, though, his focus has been on CAKE’s continued growth and success.
I recently sat down (virtually) with Ytterborn to talk about the future of CAKE, who’s the company’s competition, what he thought about battery tech and recycling, hydrogen propulsion, egalitarianism, and more.
Do you guys feel like you're taking on folks like Honda and Zero and other big-name brands?
I think that just looking at what we're trying to achieve, there's a plan. There's a vision that we should reach 200,000 units sold on an annual basis by 2030. Midterm, we are aiming to do 50,000 by 2025. So, in relation to the big dudes, it's a little smaller. I think that we cut the cake or the pie or the cheese (laughs) a bit differently because we started, and we will continue developing, within the off-road category.
The off-road side of things is very important to us because when we speak about sustainability it's not just going electric, not just saying, "Look at us, we're sustainable." It's also about extending lifecycles and making more products that actually fight the pace of consumption, which is the biggest threat to sustainability. It's about extending those lifecycles by purpose, innovation, performance, and physical quality.
So, everything we learn from the off-road side of things we then implement in our more general production, for stuff on the street or whatever it might be. We also learn from stuff we do in Africa, where we have a number of projects. One is anti-poaching. Another one is a project in Ghana with an organization named Stella Futura. Ghana needs to electrify its hospitals and healthcare, and right now electricity is scarce and very erratic.
So, they're training women that are normally unemployed to mount solar panels. They're also extending from the hospital to the outskirts where they need to transport vaccines in controlled environments. So, we have these larger bikes where they have more hefty batteries and can bring a fridge with them. It's like an infrastructure plan of sorts. Those tough terrains demand a certain level of durability, so there's a lot of reason for us to continue supporting the aspects of physical quality and durability and all that.
I'd like to go back real quick to the idea of the life-cycle of a motorcycle. That has been a very big issue. So what is your answer to the issue of batteries, recycling, and end-of-life service? What is CAKE's answer to the lifecycle issue?
Not getting too far ahead, because we are doing a big launch a few weeks from now, but I can tell you it's a program named re:Cake. It's the program for making sure that we can actually vitalize the level of relevancy in quality and durability through service programs to make sure that our vessels, even though they're different owners, will be used through a number of generations. So, it's something that I'll be able to talk to you in detail about in maybe four to seven weeks-ish.
(laughs) Okay, so let's talk about Vattenfall.
Yeah, so, Vattenfall is one of the big energy companies in Europe. They have a terrible history of being burning coal and being nasty as everyone else, but they changed strategy, management, and everything maybe five or six years ago. Their ambition is to be fossil-free before the next generation, which I think they define as 23 years or something. We came to talk to them in general about different opportunities and so forth. We concluded that maybe there's a chance for us to get together and grasp what may be done to new technologies here and there.
We'd never be able to complete the project ourselves. So, thanks to their knowledge, their size, and their resources, we were invited to be the actual physical evidence of what may be done. For about six months we've been trying to figure out different ways of approaching this. We have a very humble perspective on this because even though it says the world's first fossil-free motorcycle, we know that we never going to reach 100 percent. After all, just by being 100 percent, or just being by being a human being, you already lost the game before you started. Our ambition is by 2025 to have a commercial vehicle out there which is 78-, or 87-, or 93-percent fossil-free.
On that journey will also be doing a lot of research in general. There'll be things that we are unable to implement by the time we launch the bike, though, because there might be research saying that maybe in 12 years from now this is an opportunity. So, while this project is developing, we will try and stress whatever we can implement as soon as possible. That's in terms of what best practice we can find, which is doable, and also share with the rest of the world what we found but where we were not able to implement. That will be something that'll be activated by us or anyone else around the corner, so it's got to be like a magazine with a bi-monthly kind of information—we've done this, we've done that, we ran into this, we're going to have a problem finding something else or whatever it might be. We'll see.
I have to ask, are you guys going to do the same type of thing that Tesla did where it's “open-source” but you have to agree to a very, very long contract to use that technology? Or are you just going to be more egalitarian and say, "Listen, this is what we found, here you go."?
Yeah. [Egalitarian] is what we're going to do.
Hopefully, yeah. It's more a matter of trying to inspire the vehicle space with our findings and just to be able to accelerate in general. So, I think that the majority of brands around the world will be interested in checking out how we go, what we found, and how we conclude it. Right or wrong, it doesn't matter, but I think it's going to be a source for anyone in vehicle manufacturing. If only to have a glimpse on, "Hey, what's going on here." Someone would say, "I knew they would never succeed with this." And they would probably right from the beginning and other things would be like, "Oh, Jesus, I never thought of that," or, "I didn't know about this technology," or, "This is amazing." So, I'm sure that there's going to be a combination between success and failure in combination on our journey towards 2025.
Just speaking as a parent looking to preserve the future for my children, that's a very rad way of thinking about things and a very rare trait for a company to have.
Yeah, but I would say we're not sounding like Jesus here. I mean, there's also the aspect of establishing opinion-making and we're going to get hate on this of course, but I think that will also strengthen the bond between us and those like-minded going forward. I think it's also a way of establishing a strong community and a force going forward. We will be able to benefit, too, because people will be speaking about and so forth. We need to be sober about an initiative like this. It will do good, but it will potentially also provide a better climate for running our business.
Riffing off of that, what do you think that the public could do—and the motorcycle industry could do better—to bring about a bigger change in EV infrastructure and EV adoption?
I think that we can do a lot. I think that if we leave aside the off-road side of things, which is where I have my passion, I look at the practical aspect of transportation. If we had been speaking six months ago, I would have said that the business customers that we are targeting are sustainability-oriented operators in short-term urban transportation. Now, only six months later, I would say that unless there is a fossil-free solution for short-term urban transportation within the next 24 months, unless you don't have that within your company, you're going to be out of business.
What has changed is that what used to be vision and values is now lawmaking and regulations. This is happening after Paris decided to ban diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles within the city. Cities around the world are following at a hard pace, and again, it's the lawmaking side of things.
I think that a number of initiatives are forcing the whole space to change. One of the big challenges, I would say, is that if you are brought up with gasoline and noise it's your home turf, it's your culture. It's stuck in, in your veins. I'm not going to change that, I don't want to change that. I want to show electric as an alternative.
I think that a big mistake that most motorcycle companies make when they get going on electric bikes is that they're trying to replicate a gas bike. It's a totally different experience, though. If you love the smell of gasoline, though, you're not in general open to something else challenging your home turf. This goes for all cultures. It could be anything, it's not the motorcycling culture itself, it's every kind of culture. Therefore, all of the current combustion engine brands are stuck with a customer base that is fused into or a part of this whole oil-based society and its history.
They need to continue feeding their current gasoline-loving customer base while being aware that they need to transition. It's a bit of a complex hybrid. I think that that's the reason why companies like ourselves can enter the market. It would have been impossible for us to get in and compete in the gasoline space 15 years ago because of all of the mature and experienced companies. These companies have knowledge developed over 50 or 100 years, they were stable in their seats and nothing threatened them. Within the industry now, as electric is new, it's much easier for a new player like Tesla or Rivian or whoever to get in position because you don't carry along the backpack of the past.
For example, without the need for clutch and changing gears, no scary noises, and light vehicles you invite a new category of people. Young women, older women, women in general, someone, a mountain bike guy who's never been on a motorbike before they love it. We also get more traditional motorcyclists becoming our customers because they realize that, "Hey, it's, it is interesting, it is fun."
Well, it also allows you to go strictly with off-road stuff, you could go anywhere because it’s something lighter. You just can't get a full-size ADV in certain places. And if you have something that is far more accessible, then you can go to those places. You can reach places that no one else can.
Yeah, that's a bit of it. The challenge to some extent is that in some countries around the world, you cannot ride off-road anywhere while in Utah (Ed. Note: Where the author lives) it's pretty liberal as far as where you can ride. Canada, you go everywhere. Sweden is pretty strict but as you're saying, silently, just flying through the woods without disturbing or polluting, it's a unique experience.
Changing topics slightly, what were some of the technical hurdles that you had to grasp to bring about some of these technologies? It's not a very big battery, you don't have too much range, but you have a good amount.
I'd say that the biggest challenge was we did everything from scratch. I think that where we needed the most help was to make sure that we got an adequate suspension for the bike. So, we hired Öhlins to do that for us. That was something that we would have never, ever have been able to do ourselves, even though we have great engineers with us. It was pretty much trial and error. And I would say an acceptance to that. We're not going to get everything from the shelf, we need to be able to finance developing engineering, designing, and producing the tooling for manufacturing. So, anything from rims to hubs to even handlebars and tires were specifically developed.
One of the big mistakes we made early—because we were kind of thinking about how quickly do we need to get in the market—was trying a hub-mounted motor. We were three months into that process before we realized that with something heavy like a hub motor on the rear tire, you're going to kill all the fun there is in riding off-road. Fixing that was easy, but there were other times we'd have to go back and forth a few times to figure out what worked and what didn't.
We probably delayed the launch of the bike a year due to not being 100% sure about the wheres, whats, what-nots, and so forth. Aside from that, there’s beauty to it. That's why there are so many different EV companies coming up, aside from ourselves. The drivetrain itself, the simplicity of it compared to a combustion engine motor, allows a lot of freedom.
When you don't have much maintenance or many moving parts, you’re pretty free in the design.
The number of moving parts on one of our bikes is only 20% or 25% of the moving parts on a combustion-engined bike. So, there's much less required to develop them, to plan for it. In the end, what we did was we built a LEGO kind of thing. Everything is built with an eye toward ease of access and maintenance. If we have an issue with a motor or a battery, it's not about getting in there and tinkering with it, it's all about changing the whole part. It takes about 25 minutes to change one of our motors, and then we get the motor back, fix it back home, and use it for something else. Basically, a bicycle shop could do about 95% of the service on a bike like ours.
That is impressive. I didn't know, it only took 25 minutes to pull the motor off of it.
If I do it, it takes two and a half hours (laughs). For our engineers, probably it takes half an hour.
I might be in your category (laughs). So where do you see the technology going into the future? Do you see solid-state? Do you see longer range, more horsepower, etc?
I think that making a 250-pound bike with tons of battery is an easy thing because you just take whatever it is on the shelf—wheels, chassis, suspension, and so forth. We're trying to keep the bikes lighter than that, trying to keep that lightness. We're going to stick to the light side of things, continue building light. I'd also say increasing performance is on the list of improvements. I think that the same kind of 150-pound bike that we get at this point will potentially, in two to three years, deliver somewhere between 35% and 45% more performance just due to improvements in motors and batteries.
Electric is one thing, but we are also doing experiments right now with hydrogen. I'm not saying that we will go that way, we're just trying to see how far we can take that technology, and if it's ever going to be an alternative to lithium batteries. I think that 10 years from now, it's a matter of time before we change from cylindrical, traditional-shaped battery cells to prismatic cells. And I think that lithium-ion will be the majority of power sources 10 years from now. I'm sure there will be alternatives like hydrogen or something else, other propellants or combinations, but I'd say that gasoline, the way it is right now, is going to be gone.
There are only a handful of other companies like Kawasaki and Yamaha playing with hydrogen. To me, it seems like hydrogen lost the EV wars, at least in terms of automakers. Why do you think that motorcycle manufacturers like yourself, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and even Suzuki are continuing to tinker with the technology?
That's kind of new to me. That question is new. When we talk about the hydrogen concept that we're developing, we never actually refer to cars. I mean, the beauty is that it's pretty practical and you don't need a lot of space. It's not going to build beyond the kind of de-sizing a motorcycle and you can actually reach the same level of performance and range and whatnot, and potentially with a better environmental consequence than lithium-ion batteries. So, it's very light, agile, and swift. And then there are the safety aspects and the infrastructure around that and so forth. I mean, if you look at our prototypes right now, they're very ugly because they're big pieces of something that aren't elaborate at all. It's just welding stuff together to make sure that we can try it.
To your question, why do you think the car industry left that behind? Maybe they've invested so heavily into the lithium-ion infrastructure that they're stuck with it for another 25 years.
That does feel very car industry. Big manufacturers are cumbersome to shift course, whereas a smaller manufacturer like yourself, or a handful of other places like Kawasaki, Yamaha, or Suzuki, it’s magnitudes lower fewer of product. You can kind of be a little bit more swift and agile in terms of your technology and what you kind of go into.
Absolutely. This gets harder and harder every day, but even five years from now we're still going to be a small player. That's the beauty of being a small player because your agility and your pace and speed are so much higher. Of course, we're to some extent stuck in certain verticals, but again, what you're saying is crucial, and that's the beauty of startups.
I mean, I'd say that the first four to eight years of any company are the most wonderful. There are so many things that you can change or direct or modify in the decision-making or focus on whatever it might be. So, it's very dynamic and that's how every day goes, we are narrowing our field, but that's potentially why also the big dinosaurs get so clumsy.
They can't react as quickly.
So where do you want to see Cake in five, 10 years, and beyond?
I think that we have our numbers and all that, but I hope that Cake will be remembered as a true innovator in terms of making the vehicle industry, and the usage of vehicles for transportation, a much cleaner place. Getting to the next level of cleanness and being among the few that actually did rush this in a good way. That would be the most rewarding kind of perspective.