Look Who’s Reinventing the Wheel

With a NuVinci developer kit, it could be you

Editor’s note: This story appears in the July 2009 issue.

By Mike Drummond

A Southern California beach is as good a place as any to hold a meeting. In my case, the setting is sun-splashed Del Mar. Today’s mission: Witness one of the latest innovations in bicycle technology.

I’m here to test drive a bike fitted with a new type of drive train called the NuVinci from Fallbrook Technologies. Tony Ellsworth, the 47-year-old founder of Ellsworth Handcrafted Bicycles, and a PR guy from Fallbrook meet me at picturesque Seagrove Park overlooking the azure Pacific.

I’m promised this will be no ordinary bike with a typical hub-and-derailleur set up.


For starters, there will be no derailleur.

Derailleurs can shift poorly under load and can’t be shifted without pedaling. Moreover, they offer a finite number of gear ratios. They’ve been the standard for some 60 years. Seems like a good time for a technology makeover.

On the bike I’ll ride, the chain will never clank through a set of gears, but there will be gear-changing nonetheless. One sprocket, multiple gears. As a longtime lover of bicycles, this I had to see.

Yet as it turns out, there will be no NuVinci-fitted Ellsworth bike to ride. At least not at the beach.

“You didn’t bring a bike?” Ellsworth, seated behind the wheel of a Mazda Miata, asks Emile Barrios, who heads PR for Fallbrook.

Barrios thought that was Ellsworth’s job. Instead, Barrios brought an electric scooter made by Currie Technologies based in Chatswoth, Calif. It’s a prototype with a NuVinci hub. One day these quiet, nonpolluting scooters may be as ubiquitous as mopeds in traffic-choked cities such as Rome, Sao Paulo or Ho Chi Minh City.

But it wasn’t a bicycle. Although it was fun slaloming through dogs on leashes and babies in strollers, I couldn’t shift through the gearless shifter that these guys were so excited to show off. So we talked about the technology for a spell and worked out a Plan B.

Fallbrook Technologies, based in San Diego, has developed the NuVinci hub, what it calls a “continuously variable planetary” or CVP drive train. It has no fixed gears. Instead, a series of spheres sit inside a circular housing, much like a sealed ball bearing assembly. The balls can tilt as they rotate around an axle, applying lower or higher gear ratios depending on their angle and placement inside the housing. So-called traction fluid inside the hub, necessary to provide torque, needs changing about every 35,000 kilometers. Other than that, the company says the hub is maintenance free.

Self-taught inventor Don Miller created the technology in 1999. He says he studied a variety of mechanisms based on chains, pulleys, belts and various doughnut-shaped designs. He also had help from Leonardo Da Vinci, the original Renaissance man who envisioned the idea for a continuously variable transmission in the 1490s.

A few years ago Miller surrounded himself with business-savvy partners to commercialize his invention. As of this year, Fallbrook has an IP fortress of more than 300 patents and patents pending worldwide related to its NuVinci hub.

The CVP isn’t confined to bicycles. Wind turbines, automobile engines, light electrical vehicles, ceiling fans – virtually anything that uses a mechanical transmission or spins on an axle potentially could use the NuVinci.

Perhaps most intriguing, at least from an Edisonian perspective, Fallbrook sells NuVinci developer kits so inventors and do-it-yourselfers can tinker with the technology and find new applications. A kit costs $595 and includes a CVP transmission hub, speed sensor, integrated wiring harness, software, and an electronic shift controller with a 32-bit microprocessor, among other things.

Barrios fished out a developer kit from the back of his Lexus SUV after I took a spin on the scooter. I visually rummaged through the box. Wires. Metal parts. New transmission technology. I believe some of the engineers at our product-development shop in Charlotte, N.C., could find new and dangerous uses for all this.

An attractive Latino woman wearing oversize white-rim sunglasses approaches. She wants to know how much the scooter costs. It’s a prototype, not for sale and the price is undetermined, Barrios politely explains. “Oh, it’s cute,” she says with a wink and sashays off.

The three of us decide to head to Fallbrook’s headquarters, a few miles away in Mira Mesa. Telecom giant Qualcomm dominates this corridor of well-groomed, nondescript glass-and-steel business parks. I used to cover Qualcomm as a tech writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and I’m in familiar territory. Like pilot fish circling the whale shark, the place teems with high-tech startups – including Fallbrook.

Tony Ellsworth at the wheel.

Tony Ellsworth at the wheel.

Ellsworth and I fetch a couple of NuVinci-fitted bikes from Fallbrook’s fourth-floor office and then hit the parking lot and area surface streets.

Alas, it’s not the same as cruising the beach. But the technology works as advertised. I sit astride a bike dubbed simply The Ride. Like all of Ellsworth’s bikes, its frame was handmade at a shop in Vancouver, Wash. It looks like a beach cruiser, but it shifts like a road bike. I’m taken by the smooth, silent gearing, and intrigued by the “gear” display on the right handle. Inside a clear bubble, an orange bell curve indicates you’re in low gear for hill climbing. As you turn the shifter, the curved line goes straight, like an inchworm.

Shifting without gears.

Shifting without gears.

Ellsworth beams like a schoolboy at recess. His company was the first bike maker to partner with Fallbrook, which has since attracted some European manufacturers as well as Cadillac Bicycles.

Tony Ellsworth designed The Ride specifically for the NuVinci drive train – from its oversize tires to its exaggerated, elongated tube frame to the way the seat positioning can accommodate almost any size rider.

“I wanted to capture the important technology aspects but make it inviting for people to ride it,” he says. Although the design is retro cool, “functionality was paramount,” he adds.

NuVinci tranny and The Ride.

NuVinci tranny and The Ride.

We later lunch on carne asada and fish tacos at a local dive before heading to Ellsworth’s bicycle headquarters, a two-story salmon-stucco warehouse situated on 20 acres of boulders, scrub and avocado trees in the hills of Ramona.

He shows me past rows of green, pink, red, white and blue mountain bike frames. Each looks identical from afar. Up close, each is different, bearing signature weld beads from one of the five craftsmen Ellsworth employs in Vancouver.

Tony Ellsworth is a curious contradiction. A social conservative and observant Mormon, he voted for Obama and donates proceeds from certain bikes to fight breast cancer and rain forest preservation. He drives a 1999 truck that runs on biodiesel. “The next new car I buy,” he says, “will have to be one I plug into a wall.”

Nine framed patents hang on a beam of his two-story shop. Most are for center suspension technology on mountain bikes – an Ellsworth specialty. As committed as he is to handmade bicycles – he calls them “the most efficient possible way to move a human across terrain” – he’s a firm believer in adopting new technology.

Bicycle mechanisms haven’t changed dramatically in more than half a century. Hearing Ellsworth talk the twin virtues of craftsmanship and innovation reminds me of James Dyson, the British inventor who became a billionaire by revolutionizing the staid household vacuum (Inventors Digest, James Dyson Sucked It Up, June 2008).

And it’s that ethos that compelled Bill Klehm, CEO of Fallbrook Technologies, to partner with Ellsworth.

Klehm, a former Ford Motor Co. executive, came to Fallbrook in 2004 to commercialize the NuVinci.

He assembled a management team in San Diego. Engineering and design are done in Austin, Texas. MTD Products in Leitchfield, Ky., handles manufacturing. Klehm is a fan of innovation and has historical connections to inventors – his grandfather lost a knuckle while working for Thomas Edison.

Early this year the company announced it completed the first close of a $25.4 million financing round. NGEN III, LP provided $10 million as the lead investor. Robeco, the investment arm of Rabobank of The Netherlands, provided an additional $10 million from its Clean Tech Private Equity funds. Windstone Capital Partners Inc. of Scottsdale, Ariz. provided advisory support for the round.

Klehm called the cash infusion, “a huge validation of NuVinci technology.”

I catch up with him – or rather he catches up to me via cell while I’m en route to Los Angeles – the next day. I mention that one of my industrial design colleagues who’s also a professional road bike enthusiast calls the NuVinci a “gimmick.”

“Here’s what I like to tell my Lycra-wearing friends,” Klehm says, and notes that of the 120 million bicycles sold each year, only a fraction are sold to road race professionals and wannabes.

The largest slice of the world bicycle market is commuters and the NuVinci, he says, “is the best drive train for commuter bikes – hands down.”

Yes, the existing NuVinci hub is too big for road bikes, and mountain bikes, for that matter. Klehm says the technology is only four years old, and likens the development to early cell phones. Although at first bulky, cell phones eventually became smaller, more powerful and ubiquitous.

Klehm hopes to see that sort of growth with the company’s novel drive train. He spun off a wind turbine company called Viryd two years ago. He also believes the automobile industry will adopt unique applications of the technology.

And then, of course, there’s the developer kit, which potentially could put NuVinci drive trains into the hands of hundreds if not thousands of tinkerers and inventors. One guy has used it for his electric asparagus harvester.

“It creates an innovator’s paradise,” Klehm says of the kit. “We’re offering a brand new canvass for inventors to paint on.”

Complex engineering - simple design.

Complex engineering - simple design.