- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2015

There will be a new pair of hands on the handlebars of the Segway, as a former Chinese rival has acquired the ungainly two-wheeled scooter that never lived up to its early billing as the future of 21st century transportation.

Beijing-based scooter manufacturer Ninebot Inc., which makes a range of short-distance motorized transport devices, said Wednesday that it bought New Hampshire-based Segway Inc. for an undisclosed amount. Ninebot said it received $80 million from a group of investors, including Xiaomi, a Chinese electronics manufacturer that once accused Segway’s makers of infringing on its copyrights, to finance the purchase.

Analysts said the purchase also illustrates a new drive by Chinese companies to move away from copycat products and toward the pursuit of brand-name products, especially those that have gained some appeal among Western countries.

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“Today it’s not just copycat China,” said Neil Shen, founding partner of Sequoia Capital China, a Ninebot investor, at Ninebot’s presentation on Wednesday. “China will expand, through its own innovations and through acquisitions.”

Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, pitched up the two-wheeled vehicle in the early 2000s as the next big thing in modern transportation, asserting at one point that the Segway would “be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.” Venture capitalist John Doerr predicted that the scooter would hit $1 billion in sales faster than any other company in history, making it bigger than the Internet. And Mr. Kamen suggested that the company would sell 100,000 units in its first year.

But the motorized scooter never caught on, saddled with a damaging reputation for being uncool. The company sold just 30,000 units during its first six years in the market, according to Forbes.

The Segway seemed like a magnet for PR disasters as well.

President George W. Bush took a spill while riding the “human transporter” around his family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine. Later that same year, Segway had to recall 2,000 units after customers complained that the device was unstable when its battery ran low.

But perhaps the biggest disaster came when James Heselden, a British entrepreneur who bought the company in 2009, died in a freak accident in the fall of 2010 when a cross-country version of the Segway he was riding plunged off a cliff.

Besides the bad publicity, the Segway has also been stymied by adaptability issues. Riders and police officers have had a difficult time trying to determine its best use. Should it be a road cruiser, something like a environmentally-friendly Harley Davidson? Or should it be used like a bicycle, safe to use on sidewalks, but not on the open roads?

“When I first got it, it was so much fun,” said entrepreneur Peter Shankman, one of the first five people in New York City to buy one. “But the police didn’t know what to do with it.” Mr. Shankman says that on one block he’d be told to get on the sidewalk, while on another he’d be told to get in the street.

Ninebot Chief Executive Gao Lufeng is banking on a friendlier market in China for battery-powered Segway, in a country filled with densely populated cities and a major air pollution crisis.

Mr. Gao said he would preserve both brand names, and that the company would collaborate more closely with Xiaomi. Mr. Gao added that the Segway would offer Chinese citizens an option to alleviate the country’s air quality problems.

“This alliance will help us provide more environmentally friendly transportation methods for our customers,” he said.

Segway-like devices are widely used by Chinese police officer to patrol Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, but it remains to be seen if the personal transportation vehicle will be widely accepted by the Chinese public.

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