The whimsical Motochimp may soon be a common sight on Singapore’s roads. Vanda Electrics, the homegrown Singapore mobility company that builds the electric bike, is also producing a truck and a hypercar. CEO Larissa Tan talks about the company’s evolution.

SINGAPORE (Mar 19): In the compound of a white industrial building at Seletar Aerospace Heights, as aeroplanes take off in the distant background, a Vanda Electrics employee is taking an electric bike that looks way too small for him for a test ride. But looks can be deceiving. The tiny bike, named Motochimp, can go as fast as 40kph and is relatively stable over bends, making it ideal on busy city roads.

busy city roads. “You’ve got Uber and Grab these days [for easy travelling around the city],” says Larissa Tan, CEO of the Singaporean electric mobility firm Vanda Electrics, which invented Motochimp. “But you rarely look at the things that are going on around you. We wanted to make city commute more personal.”

 

Motochimp’s distinctive design was inspired by a doodle by Tan’s 10-year-old god-daughter. The US$3,500 ($4,600) mini bike has high handlebars, an astonishingly loud horn, and a rectangular body fashionably painted in stripes. Vanda produces the bikes in bright red, blue and yellow, and recently launched limited-edition Motochimps in cream and black. In the next 12 months, the mobility firm will roll out an array of accessories such as matching-coloured baskets and helmets for Motochimp enthusiasts.

“We wanted it to be iconic, not like your traditional motorcycles,” Tan says, “but we also wanted it to be non-intrusive. It is small enough that you can ride it to Starbucks and charge it there while you get a coffee.” Its aluminium frame is just 1m long.

But what may set it apart is the convenience of not having to hunt down a charging station, like one would have to do with most electric cars. That’s because Motochimp’s lithium-ion battery, which is hidden under the rider’s seat, can be charged using ordinary wall plugs. The 1.5kg battery is also portable. An hour’s charge gives riders a 60km runway.

Motochimp was launched at the end of 2016 at the Shenzhen International Industrial Design Fair. It has gone through a few iterations since then, and Tan expects the bikes to hit the road in the next few months. The initial markets will be Hong Kong, China and Japan, where urban riders of varying ages have embraced the little bike.

“We are going to do a few hundred units first. Then we will ramp it up to the thousands,” says Tan. Motochimp has a dealer in Singapore, but it is unclear if Motochimp will be categorised as a personal mobility device or a motorcycle in the local market. “

Scooters, trucks, hypercars

There are not many local firms in Singapore that make electric vehicles, let alone one that makes a variety of them. Vanda Electrics has been around for less than two years, but it has already built three electric-powered vehicles — a hypercar, an all-purpose van and Motochimp. Tan says Vanda, which is 22.4%-owned by locally listed engineering group Wong Fong Industries, plans to produce other lines of electrics vehicles, including more bikes. “[Most likely in the space of] last-mile private transportation, you will hear about [a new product] this year,” Tan hints.

Apart from Motochimp, Vanda has a line of boxy yellow-and-white trucks called the Ant Truck. According to Tan, the truck’s design is flexible and can be tweaked according to clients’ needs — they can be transformed into an ice cream truck or tailored to tend rice fields. Their small size allows them to fit into tight urban spaces and be used for transporting goods inside factories, sending mail or sweeping narrow alleyways.

But like Motochimp, the 3m-long truck is a powerful little thing, with a payload of one tonne. It can travel up to 100km with a 30-minute charge. The Ant Truck uses a lithium-ion battery and can also be charged using a conventional socket. “The trucks are in production. You might see some in Singapore, but mostly in private properties like factories, farms and airports, as well as shopping malls,” says Tan.

‘The best marketing tool’

Vanda Electrics started life in 2016 when the founders came together with the ambitious plan of building a hypercar. None them were from an automotive background, or had ever built a car. But one of them had dreamt up an electric hypercar in the 1990s.

“The first drawing was in 1996,” Tan recalls. “[One of the co-founders] also made a clay model and a wooden model after. But the technology back then was not advanced enough to [build] this car.”

The co-founder, whose name she won’t divulge, is an award-winning design veteran. They met while working on a project in 2003. Tan joined Vanda after a fouryear stint leading Wong Fong’s marketing department. Wong Fong has been an investor in Vanda from the start.

Vanda got to work immediately. Its hypercar, named Dendrobium after the orchid, was built in less than 13 months. Vanda invested more than $10 million in the project. The team also received input from Williams Advanced Engineering, the sole battery supplier for Formula E electric race cars.

“It usually takes years to get a concept car out,” says Tan, “but we got the car out in [13 months because] we had already booked Geneva [Motor Show].

“We were not confident but we just had to get it done. You don’t come into this [industry] with a whole lot of fear; you just got to go for it.”

Vanda and Williams managed to build the Dendrobium in time for the Geneva Motor Show in March last year. The hypercar accelerates from rest to 100kph in under 2.8 seconds, and has a top speed of 320kph.

With its carbon fibre body panels, the car weighs less than 1,800kg, lighter than the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Super Sport but heavier than the McLaren Senna. Among its most outstanding features is the synchronised opening of its roof and doors, which makes it easier for drivers to get in and out of the vehicle.

Singapore-based VinCar is the Dendrobium’s official dealer in Asia. It reportedly said the price for the hypercar could be as low as €1.5 million ($2.4 million) if its production hits 100 units.

For Tan, the Dendrobium was Vanda’s way of stamping its mark on the world stage. “People have this notion about going green and going electric, and end up with these little square things,” she says. “What I want to say is you can go green and do it stylishly. We want to show the industry that you don’t have to design green cars that come in the shape of a box. There are ways to fit the engineering into [a really] good design.” The Dendrobium’s headlights, for instance, are designed to resemble a waterfall.

Debuting a hypercar was also a way to help an unknown company break into the tight-knit race car club dominated by formidable European companies. “There are people in this industry who have grown up in this industry. The hypercar was a marketing tool [for us to break into motorsports],” Tan says.

The Dendrobium may not hit the market anytime soon, however. Production time for race cars can go up to five years. Tan has other worries, too. Producing Motochimp, Ant Truck and the Dendrobium together would be very costly. “We need to decide what’s best for the company. We need to be very clear the sports car is my marketing dollar. In the meantime, I need to do business. My Motochimps and Ant Trucks have to go,” she says.

What’s next for Tan? She is focusing on refining Vanda’s electric battery technology, but is keeping mum about the progress. “As governments regulate carbon emission, you are going to start to see greater adoption of electric products, not just vehicles. In the next five years, you will see a lot of changes to this space.”

 

Balancing act

Tan’s career with Vanda took off at a time when she was raising two very young children — the younger child was barely a year old when she became CEO of Vanda. Tan is an astute career woman who has spent most of her life in the marketing industry. She also pays extreme attention to details, and can tell if a design drawing is off by 1mm or 3mm. But as Tan tells it now, balancing work and family was not an easy task.

“There are a lot of women out there who are balancing a lot of things in their lives. Men have this issue too, but maybe a bit less. What I want to get across is it is possible [for working mothers like me],” she says. After all, she has broken into the “old boys’ club of the motorsports industry” with an impressive hypercar built in 13 months. “You just have to be a bit thickskinned and go for it,” she quips.

Tan hopes to empower women to take chances like she did. She thinks technology advancement will continue to displace people in low-value jobs like administrative work, but she does not see it as a bad thing.

“Get on with it; it’s going to happen. But you can use this opportunity to do something that inspires you. We need to see more women step up to opportunities. A lot of us don’t know it, and we are our own worst enemies,” she says.