We speak to Akos Kertesz, founder of revolutionary TPU inner tube brand Tubolito, about his journey from making smart-phone speakers to ultra-compact inner tubes which, now, can come with in-built pressure-sensors. He explains why the cycling industry is still a place where entrepreneurs with amazing ideas can flourish.
road.cc: Tell us about your background
AK: After high school, I studied mechanical engineering at the University of Technology in Vienna. My Tubolito co-founder, Christian Lembacher, actually also studied at the University of Technology in Vienna, although some years before me, but he is a chemist who specialises in materials science. After university, my first job was at a loudspeaker development and manufacturing company. I joined on a trainee programme, so I got to see how big companies operate, and that was where I met Christian. We were developing speakers for mobile phones. That was back in 2010.
So how did you go from mobile phone speakers to inner tubes?
The idea for Tubolito came up in 2015. Christian was more in the material development department, doing very scientific work, and I was in the department that operated as a connection between research and design and production. If the R&D people develop something, often production staff are quite hesitant to adopt it because they don’t want to change their processes. But the specification for mobile phones changed a lot as they became more common, and the requirements for loudspeakers changed a lot in particular.
Christian found a family of TPU [thermoplastic polyurethane] materials, which we used as a membrane – the moving part – for speakers. A speaker membrane has to be very light so that it can move easily, but it also has to be very strong because smartphones are expensive and speakers have to work perfectly all the time – it’s a basic requirement for phone use. It was a very interesting material and we were using it in phones for Apple, Samsung, Huawei.
But we were keen hobby cyclists. I commute and mountain bike, Christian is more of a dedicated mountain biker, and Christian wondered about what other applications that this material that was so special and high performance for phones, could have. Bikes have changed a lot over the years, and of course there is tubeless tyre technology, but inner tubes have stayed pretty much the same. So Christian had the idea of using TPU as an inner tube material.
How was Tubolito as a company created?
Because of my background in mechanical engineering, I had some ideas how to manufacture inner tubes from this material. TPU comes as a granulate – as little beads or beans – and you melt it to make whatever shape you like. For a year or so we were making prototypes and evaluating them. We were attacking the idea from the more technical side, because that’s our background and we enjoyed creating a new product. We weren’t thinking about the business side too much.
The first prototypes were built in my parents’ garage and my living room. We were still in regular employment, so we had to do all this in our spare time. But once we saw how small and light our prototype tubes were, we thought it would be worth getting feedback from other people.
We went to a few bike shops at the start of 2016 and we were especially supported by Martin at Mountainbiker shop in Vienna. We popped in off the street and Martin said to give him some samples and come back in two weeks. We went back after two weeks and he was amazed by the product – the feedback was really good. But at the time we didn’t really know how the cycling industry or even retail generally works. We asked if Martin would buy directly from us, but he said he only bought from distributors. However, he had a really good relationship with his distributor, and he recommended us to them.
Tell us about your first big order
At the time, our equipment was only designed for hand-making a few samples, it was not a solid production line. We made some samples for the Austrian distributor and he liked the product a lot, so he placed an order for 1,000 pieces. We were shocked – we couldn’t imagine how we could produce so much, but it was a milestone for us. We invested some of our own money into more sophisticated machines, then we found a partner who could do more of the manufacturing.
Why do you think nobody has ever gone down the route of making inner tubes this way before?
This is something where you have think completely out of the box. You need a totally different manufacturing process, totally different machines, a totally different supplier base. Also, big companies tend to struggle to make big changes to their production processes. But we did it all from scratch, so that was easier for us, and we already had connections to suppliers from our days in loudspeaker technology.
Where are Tubolito tubes made?
The tubes and the valves are made in Austria. One is an extrusion process, the other is an injection moulded process. Then we combine the two, insert the valve and make the packaging in Hungary, a one hour drive from Vienna. All our suppliers are from Europe.
What was it like having to deal with all the commercial considerations of running a business and how does the cycle industry compare with the mobile phone industry?
Working in the electronics industry was good schooling for us because, there, loudspeakers are produced on scales of millions of pieces. It’s very high volume and a small project would be three million pieces, and even then you’d be wondering whether it was worth taking that project on. Everything is focused on high automation and keeping prices low. When we started with Tubolito, we had more manual processes but over time we have added more and more automised processes, because as the quantities grow, it’s worth investing in automation. That has two benefits: you can reduce manufacturing costs but you also improve the quality.
It's not just after market where Tubolito is finding success. Tell us about some of the bike manufacturers that you are now supplying.
In the UK, we supply Brompton’s T-Line range and the new Brompton x CHPT3 bikes. We have really enjoyed our collaboration with Brompton. The funny thing was, before we started with Brompton officially, some of our customers were already emailing us to ask for 16in tubes for Bromptons. We take every request very seriously, so we looked into it and felt it could be an interesting market. Then, soon after we started selling them as aftermarket items, Brompton got in touch.
Elsewhere in Europe we also supply Canyon. In both Brompton and Canyon’s cases, our tubes tend to be specc’ed on mid to high-end models.
With tubeless wheels and tyres having become so fashionable over the last decade or so, do inner tubes still have a place in cycling?
Firstly, I think tubeless is a great technology with a number of advantages. But there are also downsides, such as the difficulty of mounting tyres. I think this is the point where Tubolito comes in. Previously, you had tubeless on one hand and butyl rubber tubes on the other, and the gap between them in terms of technology was wide. But now with Tubolito’s TPU inner tubes, its much closer to the benefits of tubeless with low weight and more puncture resistance. I think for people who are struggling with tubeless, our inner tubes are a very good option. Those people don’t have to go back to old-technology with rubber inner tubes, but they can have a hi-tech alternative.
The second point is that many riders who use tubeless tyres still carry a spare tube with them because you can patch a tube, but if you have a sidewall cut with a tubeless set-up, you can be stranded. Tubolito’s TPU technology means that spare can be very small and light, which you can easily carry. We have also especially developed S-Tubo technology, which uses tubes with half the thickness of normal Tubolito tubes, making them super, super compact.
What can you see as the future for Tubolito?
What we are working on now, which I can talk about, is we have made the first inner tube with an inbuilt pressure sensor. This is our first step in the direction of smart inner tubes. You put your phone near a simple chip that is built into the inner tube; using NFC technology, the chip is activated and performs a measurement; and the measurement data is then sent back to your phone and you can see the current inner tube pressure. These products are on sale already for mountain bikes and in the summer we will release the Tubo Road with P-SENS technology – which is our name for this pressure sensing technology – which will cost €44.95.
At launch, it was more of a proof of concept and to see what demand there was for smart inner tubes. In the end, we couldn’t fulfil all of the demand because of global semiconductor shortages. But with such interest, we are also now continuing our work in the fields of smart technologies. There are more interesting products to come!
Now you are surrounded by cycling every day, do you still love riding your bike as much as you used to?
Yes, I still enjoy it a lot. I still cycle commute every day, although for leisure riding I have slightly less time because of Tubolito, and the fact I have a 14-month son, with my wife expecting our second child in April. But any time I can get on the bike, I really enjoy it. And we really love our jobs. Our whole team is very passionate about the products and the cycling industry. Sometimes we should probably take a step back and appreciate what we have achieved but the motivation is still high to further improve new products.
Finally, why are Tubolitos orange?
As pioneers in the field of TPU bicycle inner tubes, we wanted to also visually highlight the innovative character and nature of Tubolitos compared to conventional bicycle inner tubes made of black butyl rubber. However, there are some riders who prefer a very clean looking bike. That is why we are now offering our entire product range for Road and CX/Gravel bikes with a black valve as well. While the characteristics of the tubes, such as low weight, great robustness and low rolling resistance stay the same, the only thing that changed is the colour of the valve. With this new option we do now have the perfect option for all cyclists favouring minimalistic and clean looking bikes.
To see Tubolito's full range, visit www.tubolito.com.
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