PlanPhilly

Philly natives enter the e-scooter wars with $100k homegrown startup, Verve S

Six pallets stacked with long, flat boxes containing the battery-powered two-wheelers sit along the perimeter of the not-yet-open Feltonville eatery.

Statham, 36, and his business partner and friend Kevin Thompson, also 36, have no idea how long the scooters will be there — or where else they could go.

“We looked at different storage places,” said Thompson, a Philly native who spent most of his teenage years in Lawncrest, not too far from the Feltonville building. “Because it’s a new industry, it’s very hard to find somewhere to store them.”

The “new industry” is dockless e-scooters. The latest trend in the micro-mobility industry, the slim rides offer a fresh alternative to riders accustomed to sharing bikes or Ubers, and ready for a new set of wheels. ,Over the last few years, they’ve gained popularity as cities legalize them for street use. Philly isn’t there yet.

But when it is, Thompson and Statham will be ready. The entrepreneurs have created an e-scooter company, Verve S, and assembled a small fleet specially designed with their hometown in mind.

“The advantage we got, we from Philly,” said Thompson. “And we the first from Philly.”

The two founded their company after seeing the lightweight devices whizzing around Los Angeles on visits there last year. Hungry for a new venture, they began laying the groundwork to bring e-scooters to Philadelphia.

“When me and him was just out there brainstorming,” Thompson said. “We was like, ‘We should bring scooters back to Philly, man. This jawn would be major,’ and we jumped right on it.”

They researched the new sector, identified a scooter manufacturer, an app developer, and someone to handle their data. They pooled almost $100,000 and counting for start-up costs, from earnings made on real estate investments.

Now, the co-founders are making the rounds in the political, tech, and entrepreneurial scenes to stir up support locally. The black scooters with a minimalist logo on the stem have already turned up at a festival and at the office of at least one elected official.

On a recent afternoon, State Rep. Stephen Kinsey took a Verve scooter for a spin outside his Germantown office prior to a sit-down.

“I got on this thing and rode it without a problem,” Kinsey said. “No problem, whatsoever.”’

    • CEO Kevin Thompson rides a Verve e-scooters on Roosevelt Blvd near the restaurant where he and his partner have 99 e-scooters stored and ready for launch. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)
      CEO Kevin Thompson rides a Verve e-scooters on Roosevelt Blvd near the restaurant where he and his partner have 99 e-scooters stored and ready for launch. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

‘This jawn would be major’

Verve S wants to set itself apart with a deliberate strategy for distribution.

After observing the way other companies in other cities left their scooters around, adding clutter to public spaces, Statham and Thompson decided to do it differently. They plan to limit their scooters to designated areas like college campuses or commercial districts. They also chose a model of scooter that folds to save space at their drop-off points.

City Councilman Mark Squilla also took Verve for a spin. He praised the company for its vision of a controlled approach to releasing the scooters.

“I like their concept,” he said. “They’re a little different from what the other companies are doing.”

Earlier this year, Kinsey and State Rep. Greg Rothman introduced a bill to legalize e-scooters. That bill could pass in the fall, Kinsey said. The Germantown legislator says he wants to see Verve and other local companies get the chance to compete with deep-pocketed startups like Bird and Lime with international reaches but no local roots.

“Verve S is simply another option that we’re presenting,” Kinsey said.

Should e-scooters become legal in the city, Thompson and Statham say local outfits like theirs should have first dibs. They want to make a profit, but they also hope to be a benefit to their community.

“Lime and Bird, they just want to drop the scooters out here and just worry about the money,” said Statham, who grew up in North Philadelphia. “For us, it’s not just about the money.”

    • Verve S scooters operate through an app. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)
      Verve S scooters operate through an app. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

An e-scooter designed for Philly, by Philly

Aaron Ritz, the city’s transportation systems manager, said Philly officials are in no hurry to get in on the e-scooter craze.

They are concerned about safety, and how well the scooters would integrate with the city’s transportation goals like CONNECT and Vision Zero.

“We’re thrilled for new innovations,” Ritz said. “But we definitely want to be taking a really keen look at what is going to be the outcomes for people in Philadelphia that use it. Whether they are tourists visiting and using a transportation option, or residents, or folks just riding around, we want to make sure that we’re approaching that with an eye toward safety.”

E-scooters can go as fast as 15 miles per hour.  For comparison, the e-bikes recently added to the city’s Indego bike share fleet go up to 17 mile per hour.  

A study out of Austin,Texas, found that out of 190 riders who reported being injured on scooters, 33% were hurt during their first ride. And close to half experienced injuries to the head, with 15% of those injuries resulting in traumatic brain injury.

However, only one out of the 190 wore a helmet.

To that end, Verve is exploring a possible partnership with a helmet company, but the details have yet to be ironed out. Thompson and Statham say they want to offer tutorials on how to safely use their scooters, and, if permissible, prohibit people under 18 from renting them.

Plus, Thompson said, restricting the scooters to specific areas will give the city a chance to keep up with its growth.

“If you just drop them anywhere, it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “They should be dropped in controlled environments, and it should grow gradually as we understand more information and data.”

For as much as they’re growing in popularity, e-scooters are also drawing their fair share of vitriol. There’s even a popular social media account dedicated to their destruction.

At the legislative level, cities are pushing back, too. Like in Paris, Lime’s biggest market, according to Shari Shapiro, director of mid-Atlantic government relations. Twelve operators have flooded Paris with 20,000 e-scooters, according to The Guardian.

The mayor and police are now trying to limit the number of operators and scooters, as well as their speed. They also want to designate areas to park them.

New York state lawmakers reached a deal this week to legalize e-scooters in their state. The legislation, first reported by the New York Times, allows cities and towns to regulate the devices locally everywhere but Manhattan. On that congested island, the scooters are banned.  City lawmakers fear the borough’s crowded streets can’t safely accomodate them.

In Pennsylvania, if e-scooter momentum comes to a halt in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, things won’t stop for Verve S, says Thompson.

“That’s a nightmare,” he said. “But I’m very resourceful. I know how to pivot. I know I’ve been dealing with adversity my whole life. Them saying that the regulation ain’t passing is almost like how my life always play out. So, I ain’t trippin’ off that shit.”

About the author

Darryl C. Murphy, Reporter

Darryl C. Murphy is PlanPhilly's transportation and mobility reporter. He is a 2017 graduate of Temple University and originally from South Jersey.



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    Photo Credit: (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

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