Ben Gulak thinks there’s a ready market for a high-performance extreme sports vehicle that goes up to 30 miles an hour and boasts a three-foot turning radius. Designing his dream—the DTV Shredder—has been a long and arduous process, but the seasoned automotive engineer refused to hurry it into production. Why rush when you’re all of 23 years old?
A science prodigy who says he never much liked science class, Gulak began his career when he was 17 in Oakville, Ont. With the goal of winning Intel’s (INTC) International Science and Engineering Fair, he decided to make a vehicle for his senior project that would combine the technology of the electric Segway upright two-wheeler with the sleekness of a motorcycle. The result was the Uno, an electric vehicle that could transform from unicycle into motorcycle mid-ride with the flip of a switch. Gulak hoped to market the Uno to consumers in Asia as an eco-friendly transportation option.
Photograph by Joe Leavenworth for Bloomberg Businessweek
The project caught the eye of Intel’s then-chairman, Craig Barrett, and Gulak won the award for the most marketable project. Media noticed as well—the Uno soon wound up on the cover of Popular Science magazine. Gulak then went on Canadian reality show The Dragons’ Den, where he persuaded angel investors to pledge $1.25 million for the Uno’s development. In the end, though, regulatory hurdles killed the Uno. “Segway spent almost a quarter billion dollars getting their vehicle certified for sidewalk use,” he says. “I would never be able to raise the capital to certify [the Uno] for use anywhere.”
Undeterred, Gulak came up with the idea for a vehicle that would be cheaper to produce, and started an engineering design company, BPG Werks, to develop it. Like the Uno, the DTV Shredder evolved from his desire to take the Segway and make it sexy. This time, he focused more on muscle and speed. The Shredder is an all-terrain vehicle with tank treads, a motorcycle throttle, and the side-to-side mobility of a skateboard. “I really like the idea of bringing something new into the world,” Gulak says, “to an industry that’s been stagnant for a long time.”
The young inventor is confident that the Shredder will appeal to both snowmobilers and the fast-growing population of extreme sports enthusiasts. So far, he’s presold 4,000 of them at $4,000 each. He plans to ship in November, and projects 10,000 sales by Christmas. He’s also in negotiations with the Department of Defense to develop the Shredder as a robotic pack mule for the military that could haul loads of up to 800 pounds over rocky terrain.
Some early investors initially balked at Gulak’s plan to shift equity investments to development of the Shredder, but all have now come around. “You could tell with Ben that he’s a very credible entrepreneur, despite [that] I met him when he was a teenager,” says Jonathan Seelig, co-founder of Akamai Technologies (AKAM). “I think that’s a powerful statement that people are backing the jockey, not the horse.”