Dragon Ball inspires! From attitude to exercise, and real-life inventions.
Today we talk with Chris Hoffmann, CEO and Founder of RYNO Motors, a revolutionary American motorcycle company.
The RYNO Bike
Q: What is RYNO Motors?
Chris: RYNO Motors manufactures a single-wheeled electric motorcycle. At a speed of 10 miles per hour and a 25 mile range, it looks like a Ducati sawed in half. The handle bars are where the gas tank would normally be, and the seat is over the rear tire.
Q: How does the RYNO work?
Like a Segway scooter, it balances front to back with gyro stabilization, and then you steer it left and right like a bike. The steering geometry allows the tire to roll on its edge as you roll around curves. It’s a highly rideable, super fun, non-stop attention grabber. You can be a rock star anywhere you go.
Q: Your videos do make the RYNO look fun to ride.
It’s a lot of fun. It’s kind of like yoga practice, where you have to pay attention to what you’re doing in your core. It asks something of you that most products don’t. I take it around after dinner just for fun. It’s a blast.
Inspired by Dragon Ball
Q: Where did the idea for a one-wheeled motorcycle come from?
Back in 2007, my 13-year-old daughter and I were driving out to go fishing. She was sitting there, and out of the silence she says, ‘Daddy, I saw this one-wheeled motorcycle in this show called Dragon Ball… Is it possible to build that?’’
I was like, ‘Well what’s it look like?’ So she pulls out a piece of paper in the car and draws a sketch for me. And I still have that sketch.
It inspired the following conversation. ‘There’s a Segway scooter, and that balances. How would you ride this?’ She says, ‘Well when you lean forward it goes faster.’ ‘Okay, that makes sense.’ And we kicked the idea around in the car.
Building the Prototype
Q: How did you approach making it?
I went home and got on the Internet to try and figure out the one thing that would stop me from doing this. I tried to kill the idea, as any seasoned inventor would. But I wasn’t able to.
At the time I invented it, in 2007, the thing that appeared as a low cost sub-component was the gyro stabilization chip. It’s about the size of a rice kernel, and knows where the center of the earth is. Without that, balancing on one wheel is totally impossible. Gyros started to appear in cell phones and different accelerometers for radio controlled helicopters. So when my daughter asked me if a one wheel motorcycle could be built, miraculously all the parts to build it had finally been invented.
That’s when I realized, ‘You know, there’s nothing that doesn’t exist that wouldn’t make that possible.’ Remember the whole Battle Bots TV show? That show inspired a cottage industry of geeks making cheap controller boards, batteries, and motor controllers. For 150 bucks you can get a badass motor controller. So I found a guy in Washington selling these for the Battle Bots industry and bought a couple, and then bought the gyro.
I thought, if I stick a motor inside the wheel, then with software looking at the gyro to know where the center of the earth is, if the bike tips forward, it will drive the wheel back under the center of gravity. That’s the control loop.
I tried to wire this thing myself and write the software, and literally the moment I turned it on, flames came out of it! Fire extinguisher level flames!
After that I decided I needed a real software engineer.
When I found him, he had a website on how to make a Segway out of wood. He had the code and everything, so I just called him. He came over and said, ‘Are you freakin’ crazy?’ But then he took my box of parts and my software and went back to his place. A while later he tells me, ‘I’m going fishing, there’s a box on my back porch, come get it.’
In the box there’s a chunk of 2′ X 6″, with one wheel on the bottom. My controller and a battery were screwed onto the side of it. There’s an on-switch and a note that says to turn on the switch. So I turn it on and the thing balanced on my work bench. I poked it, one direction or the other, and it was totally standing there. I’m like, ‘Oh my god. You’re hired.’ That was the first day, the first embodiment.
Then I took a machine shop class, and I started making all the parts. I had a little studio where I pounded out the aluminum parts and welded them to create a prototype. Took about a year.
Actually, the first thing I did was chop my mountain bike in half. I took the handle bars and put them where the seat post is, and put some foam on the rear shelf behind the wheel, and tried to ride it around in my backyard. Totally impossible. Since it didn’t steer, you couldn’t ride it in a straight line. We even had unicycle guys try to ride it, but it was impossible.
It wasn’t until after a second prototype that we found out you needed to add steering to be able to ride the thing. Then, ‘Oh my gosh, this thing totally rides.’
Q: You were doing this out of your garage? Were you already a fan of motorcycles?
Yeah. I’m a geek, and I’ve had motorcycles. I had a Norton 850 Commando back in the day, and rode motorcycles around the country, so I knew how to ride.
But as an engineer, how do you wrap your head around riding on one wheel? I thought, ‘If I put a gyro stabilized motor inside, and take the pedaling part away, I’d have an awesome product.’ There were concept designs but nobody had ever done this. There was one guy who built a motorized unicycle, Trevor Blackwell. I found that on the Internet. But nobody had done this with handlebars or one that looked like a motorcycle with one wheel.
Q: You’re blazing your own trail.
Totally. What is it even supposed to look like? Motorcycles have handle bars, a gas tank, motor, seat, and so on. The gas tank is such a big part of it. How do you mentally get away from the gas tank? Just doing that was a challenge. I had an argument with my designer doing sketches for me about the gas tank: ‘You don’t need a gas tank!’ I realized if you make the tire big enough you can cram all the machinery in the tire.
That’s what makes it magical looking—like a magic carpet. Where are the motors? It’s a combination approach brought by skill and serendipity. The fat tire looks awesome, but really, it needs to be that big because it has to hold all the motors and controls and batteries.
The Next Step
Q: You have this prototype. What’s the next step?
I took the first prototype to a parking lot. We rode it. But the very first ride, the control wasn’t set up well enough, so I nosedived into the ground.
I did a nice tuck and roll, but still hit the ground so hard I broke my collarbone. On the very first ride.
But after that we would take it to parking garages and try to get guys to ride it. But it was so heavy and impossible to ride with no steering.
My software guy and I had this conversation: ‘Now what?’ Spinning flywheels? Two wheels under the seat that look like one wheel? I was doing these counter-rotating flywheel designs, flywheels within flywheels, and other shit. But I realized, ‘If this thing isn’t dirt simple, it’s never going to sell. So the only thing you can do is add some sort of steering.’ Which makes no sense at all since there’s only one wheel. If you turn the handlebars, are you going to go left or right? I had no idea. But I couldn’t imagine anything else, so I just stuck the steering on there anyways, to mimic the steering on a motorcycle.
Imagine riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle, because the steering axis is behind you. I created a linkage to the handlebars that goes back to the pivot. I went to the shop and bashed together a crappy frame in about two months, and loaded the software into it and took it over to my house.
Then my software guy and I are standing there, and we’re going, ‘If this thing doesn’t ride, we’re done right now, because I got shit to do.’ We say, ‘Okay, great, deal.’
I got on it, and rode off like I was on a bike! Down the driveway, into the street, looped around, and back. ‘This thing rides like a piece of cake. Night and day difference.’
Soon I started taking it downtown and riding it around, and that’s when, oh my god, people love this thing. There were almost car crashes. People would follow me around in their cars with video cameras sticking out their windows. It was like they were watching an alien invasion!
Q: There’s never been anything like this.
And there still hasn’t been!
I ride it around and even homeless people still shout, ‘That’s my bike! I’m calling the cops!’
The RYNO Name
Q: What does RYNO stand for?
‘Rip You a New One.’
It was from the Ratchet and Clank video game series. It’s a weapon you get—the RYNO-II. That was my daughter’s idea as well. ‘Daddy, you should name the company RYNO.’
Q: It’s simple and easy to remember.
Thanks. I did the logo myself too.
Q: You said this started in 2007, but I was under the impression that this came out in 2013.
Yeah, when we first got funded it was the end of 2012, rolling into ‘13. We raised 1.3 million dollars, and then another million dollars later on. That’s what launched us, but up till then I had been working on it for 5 years, building prototypes. I left my marriage, sold my house, lived in a little rented room in a community house, built prototypes at a machine shop, built shit in a basement; I was relentless.
Q: You were an inventor prior to this?
I spent 15 years in the auto industry building heavy plant-sized machinery. Plants that would make engine blocks and transmissions. So I was a good mechanical engineer. Then I moved to the West Coast and spent 5 years doing consumer product development: Circuit boards and plastic parts. Then I did 3 years in a skunkworks research lab, inventors for hire, invention training, and got really good doing that. So as far as being prepared to invent something like the RYNO bike, I was probably in the top 10%.
Q: It sounds like you’re always thinking of ways to combine things together into new inventions.
Yeah, and it was kind of an ego driven pursuit too, once I realized I could build this thing. I used to play in punk rock bands in Detroit in the late ‘80s, and that visceral feeling of being on stage, of feeding your ego, and then you go into a 20-year marriage where it’s really, really quiet, and you’re handed this opportunity. Feeling like, ‘If I can do this thing, I’ll be a total fucking rock star.’
Then you do that for a while, until you smash your face in the ground and you have a rude awakening. ‘Alright. This thing that was going to be fun, has other plans for me, so why do I really want to do this?’ Then you shift your rationale, ‘If I’m really going to do this, I have to do it for a much bigger reason. It’s not worth it if I’m going to fucking kill myself.’
Q: This is a business now, not just something you’re pursuing by yourself.
Right, so you have to make sure the software is safe, you have to oversee the engineering, and start to get rigorous.
Q: I lived in Brooklyn a few years ago. I know you did test rides there as part of your press tour. About a week after I moved away, you did test rides. I was like, ‘Oh, man! I missed my chance!’
We did the Today Show there. Then we did a whole press tour. Business Insider. CNN. Wired Magazine. It was like 10 degrees below and we were riding under the viaduct under the Brooklyn Bridge. Once you do a TV show for press, it gets redistributed to other countries. I did an automobile show in Germany, then the Discovery Channel, Toys 360, then the Gadget Show. They keep replaying them to this day because they sell tons of advertising around it.
Q: With all of this press, how did the launch go?
Here’s the tragedy. We built 20 bikes in the United States—the red ones on my website. Just when we were getting ready to set up our dealers on the West Coast, we did a deep patent search and found this one patent from a Slovenian inventor that covered the steering geometry on our bike. It was so well-written and it predated our bike by a year.
We ended up having to get a hold of him. He was totally unreasonable. He wanted too much money, and an unreasonable royalty percentage. We couldn’t do that deal because it would kill the company. So we ended up putting everything on moth balls, and we let two years go by.
Q: So you have this bike, the investors, and then this patent issue stops everything. On your website it says, ‘Bikes coming in 2015.’ I don’t think anybody knows what’s going on.
Right. After shutting the business down and not touching our Facebook page for two years, I called him recently and said, ‘Dude, look, I’ve got nothing and you’ve got nothing. Just give me a number.’ He reluctantly offered me a reasonable offer and we signed a deal that allows us to buy his global rights.
That went down a couple months ago, so we’re in a position to do a licensing deal and restart the company. I haven’t gotten around to doing anything with the website yet because we don’t have a strategy for that yet.
Q: You have people who pre-ordered the bikes and are waiting?
We did a pre-order for about 300 to 400 people. But once the patent issue came up, we refunded everybody’s money.
Q: All because of this guy you didn’t know who invented this thing that you also invented on your own.
Yeah, and since our patent issued, with all this steering tech in it we thought we were good.
The good part now is the fact we have access to his patent, the patent is so well-written, it’s actually more valuable than our patent—if you’re going to build a RYNO with steering. There are some Chinese knock-offs coming out right now that don’t have steering, and they’re never going to be a big product. The steering makes it so easy. With your feet you lean down left and right, and you can track a perfect line.
Q: So you’ll be doing a second launch?
I’m being very strategic in managing my next move and still being sensitive to allowing it to do what it wants to do. I sit in front of a computer and I get 6 emails a day from people all around the world who want to buy this thing. But I don’t have a bike [to give them]. It’s kind of heart wrenching.
Q: But you said it’s going to be coming back soon.
Yeah. I’ve got two Asian manufacturing partners who are interested in putting the bike into production, but they’re kind of dragging their feet. If I had half a million dollars I could hire them right now to put it into production. I’m just trying to reconstruct what direction to take it in.
Seeking the Source
Q: Did you ever go to the source and look up Dragon Ball and this one-wheeled motorcycle, to see the design and how it moves?
There’s that one classic illustration of the girl on it, leaning forward.
Q: That’s Akira Toriyama’s drawing from Dragon Ball. That’s what your daughter saw.
Q: Did you know that Toriyama is a big fan of motorcycles?
Q: He’s been a motorcycle aficionado and racing bike fan his whole life. As a child, his father ran an auto repair shop, and now he has his own garage attached to his house, where he tinkers. He’s one of the richest men in Japan, so he would be the perfect guy to speak with about the RYNO, or to send him one.
If you can get a hold of Akira Toriyama and he wants to invest in RYNO Motors, that would be awesome!
Q: I have his address. He’s one of those guys who is a creative genius, but is also a shut-in. Likes to be left alone. Tough to get a hold of.
I’m just getting ready to sell my last bike, but if I had enough cash, it would be funny to just send him a bike.
Q: I’m sure he would draw it and share it with his billions of fans. He’s the most-recognized Japanese comic artist in the world.
He’s uber rich?
Q: Yeah. He has hundreds of millions. And he loves tinkering around with machines and draws all kinds of crazy contraptions.
You and I have to go on a pilgrimage and find this guy. He’s the perfect investor for this company!
Q: If you want to pay for my ticket to Japan, I will fly with you to Japan.
Okay. Let’s figure it out. But now that I think about it, we should just go meet him with no agenda at all. We should just show-up in front of him, tell him each of our stories and see what magic wants to constellate as a result.
Some of the greatest businesses have been started as a result of the pure challenge and spirit of the thing. That’s at the core of why I’m still devoted to RYNO, it keeps revealing untold aspects of itself, and like my new book HEART in GEAR, it challenges me to reveal more of who I am.
Q: That would be fantastic. Thank you for the offer. Let’s do it.
The Dragon Ball Effect
Q: This is another great example of how Dragon Ball has changed people’s lives. Akira Toriyama has had a huge influence on the world. For example, there’s this thing in Dragon Ball called senzu. It’s a hermit bean based off of traditional Chinese Daoist culture. When you eat the bean it heals all your injuries and keeps you full for 10 days.
Q: It’s an amazing idea. It helps the martial artists in the show recover from their wounds and get back into action. Or when they’re training in 10 times Earth’s gravity and they’re all beat up, they eat a senzu and recover their vitality and can go back to their training. So like yourself, there was this inventor in Japan who was inspired by Dragon Ball to say, ‘I’m going to create this in real life.’ So he looked for a bio-organic solution, a real food, not like a pharmaceutical pill, he wanted it to be natural.
Like an energy drink.
Q: Yeah, so what he found was this thing called euglena. It’s this plant-based bacteria that has all of the proteins and nutrients that a human being needs to survive, packed within each cell. So you eat this bacteria and it gives you a full day’s worth of nutrition. So he puts euglena in cookies, soup, and everything else—there’s now a euglena variant of it. He’s got factories filled with giant tubs of this bacteria, millions of dollars of investments, and it’s all because of Dragon Ball. He said, ‘I want to create a real-life equivalent of senzu.’ It’s amazing how Dragon Ball can affect people in Japan, and people in America, and now people are going to be riding your bikes all over the world.
Totally! I love this! This whole train of thought. There’s an interesting conversation I had with a friend of mine the other day. ‘If you want to speak your truth, genuinely, you can’t have any attachment to wanting to have anything change.’ So if you have an agenda and want something to be different and talk about making it different, you’re not speaking your truth. To speak your truth all you can do is talk about what you’re observing. The other thing about truth is it automatically reveals who we are and what we’re made of. We all spend way too much time trying to explain ourselves and describe what we stand for when just simply telling our honest truth or taking action based on our unique perspective says all we ever need to say. That’s why it’s so scary to be truthful, we might accidentally be found out.
You have an obligation to speak your truth.
Because you may be surrounded by a hundred people you may know, and if those hundred people are affected by your truth, then those people each know a hundred people. So you can radiate your existence through your truth out into the world. But by being silent you don’t exist at all.
Q: Exactly. That’s what Akira Toriyama did with his comics. He was just trying to entertain people, but now so many people have been influenced and inspired by it. Star Trek, Star Wars, Dragon Ball, and these other far-thinking series, when the creators are making them it’s because that’s what they feel inspired to do because it’s what they love, and then it goes on to have a ripple effect throughout the world.
Q: It’s cool how once you dedicate yourself to something, you’ll find there’s an audience for it. It’s rewarding, but hard. I can relate to the commitment, dedication, and sacrifice required to do what you’re doing. So I respect you for doing this.
Thank you. It’s been a long journey. When we started running out of money because of the patent thing, we had to close our business down and move our bikes into storage. I started doing side jobs designing machinery for companies around Portland. I haven’t taken a real job because I wanted to be available for RYNO.
Q: The enthusiastic response to this bike must be motivating to help you continue this monumental effort.
It was a lot of effort. And it took a lot to stick with it. And sometimes I think, ‘I’ve got other things I should be doing.’ But when I look at my YouTube videos and they go from a few thousand views two years ago to over 20 million today, I think, ‘Oh my god, who are these people?’ I look at the analytics and they’re all over the world. I believe they too see some hidden aspect in themselves that somehow the RYNO may rekindle. They also see RYNO as a poster child for the bright technology driven future we all hope is coming, one built on a shared experience-based economy where we all are waking up, sharing our innovations and being transparent in our discoveries so we all can thrive.
Life’s meaning isn’t about what we try to create and force on the world—it’s about how we allow ourselves to be changed by the act of creation.
Q: Congrats on your success so far. I’m looking forward to the relaunch and what may come of it. It’s going to revolutionize the way people think about motorbikes and transportation. I know a lot of people are still excited for it.
It’s amazing. The fanbase is still blown away by it.
Chris Hoffman is the CEO and Founder of RYNO Motors, and the author of HEART in GEAR: An Engineer’s Erotic Journey to Freedom, available on Amazon.
So what do you think of RYNO’s origin being inspired by Dragon Ball?
Does it make you want to ride a RYNO?