First they worked in tandem, now they’re in an e-bike patent suitReading Time: 6 minutes
Grenoble-based eBikeLabs, a French startup that has been working on embedded software for electric bikes, is suing Cowboy for patent infringement and, more generally, copying eBikeLabs’ technology in its latest feature, AdaptivePower. Cowboy, the Belgian electric bike manufacturer, has refuted all the allegations and even said that eBikeLabs is running a smear campaign.
This is a messy story about a business relationship that fell apart between a small startup that doesn’t have deep pockets and a popular consumer brand that wants to protect its reputation.
An exclusive partnership
eBikeLabs has been around since 2015. The company first started with an ambitious project: it wanted to build its own electric bike hardware controller that could be leveraged by multiple electric bike manufacturers. While the startup secured a public grant from the French environment and energy agency (ADEME) to develop it, that product never really took off. eBikeLabs developed two proofs of concept but it never resulted in large scale commercial agreements.
More recently, eBikeLabs decided to pivot and focus exclusively on the software part of the e-bike controller. The company would then partner with controller manufacturers to bring their firmware and software stack to existing hardware. The company thought this strategy would work particularly well with newcomers in the e-bike industry, such as companies working on control units for the automotive industry and looking for new segments.
This is how Maël Bosson described the contract at the time:
Following this move, eBikeLabs became an outsourced research and development group for Cowboy as there were some strict exclusivity clauses on eBikeLabs’ side — with this contract, eBikeLabs had only one client and one financial partner. Shortly after that, eBikeLabs laid off its sales and marketing team due to the Cowboy contract.
eBikeLabs started working on the controller firmware for the next generation of Cowboy bikes. The main advantage with custom-made firmware is that eBikeLabs could release software features for the drivetrain.
In particular, eBikeLabs had been working on a field adaptation algorithm. With this technology, the controller automatically adjusts the power level of the motor depending on the current slope or wind conditions. For instance, if you’re cycling uphill, the rider automatically gains extra power so that it doesn’t feel harder.
The breakup and the release of AdaptivePower
Then, at some point in 2022, Cowboy terminated the contract with eBikeLabs. There could be several reasons why the relationship ended. While eBikeLabs had to work exclusively with Cowboy, there was no exclusivity contract on the other side. Cowboy was free to work on other projects internally or with other suppliers. If Cowboy wasn’t happy with eBikeLabs’ progress, it could decide not to move forward with eBikeLabs.
At the same time, the startup funding environment has changed drastically from 2021 to 2022. Cowboy, riding high on the rising interest among consumers and cities in Europe for more eco-friendly mobility during Covid-19, raised $80 million near the end of 2021, with its investors including the likes of Index Ventures and Tiger Global. Fast forward to today, though, and it’s become much harder to raise large rounds like that in recent months.
In 2022, Cowboy generated €41 million in revenue and sales grew by 2.7x compared to 2021 with 20,000 bikes sold in 2022 alone. And yet, Cowboy may have realized that acquiring eBikeLabs would be an expensive move in the current environment.
When Cowboy raised its most recent funding round in March of this year, it was being done on much tougher terms. Less than €15 million came from VC funds, and to get that investment, Cowboy had to lower its valuation by 44% — PitchBook indicates that this transaction was made at a valuation below $200 million but the e-bike maker has not confirmed the figures. That round was completed with an equity crowdfunding round of €1.5 million.
After ending the contract with eBikeLabs, the electric bike maker had two options. If it still wanted to work with eBikeLabs, it could start negotiating a new contract with eBikeLabs to license eBikeLabs’ technology, or it could throw away all of eBikeLabs’ work and part ways.
Instead, in March 2023, Cowboy did something else: it released a software update with a new feature called AdaptivePower. As I wrote at the time, AdaptivePower ‘automatically adjusts the power of the motor depending on the current slope and weather conditions.’
Instead of including + and – buttons to adjust the power of the motor, Cowboy automatically increases and decreases the power delivery of the electric motor based on external factors.
AdaptivePower is at the center of the two companies’ dispute. According to eBikeLabs, Cowboy is reusing some of eBikeLabs’ technology. According to Cowboy, eBikeLabs is running a smear campaign.
When Cowboy released AdaptivePower, the company’s co-founder and CTO Tanguy Goretti posted a message on LinkedIn and said ‘I’m super proud of the team behind that project.’ He then listed 16 names and all of them currently work or recently worked for Cowboy.
That’s why the company decided to sue eBikeLabs for disparagement. ‘Cowboy refutes all the allegations made by eBikeLabs in their leaked email and should a formal suit be brought, will be formally challenged by Cowboy,’ a Cowboy spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
The messy world of intellectual property
So what happened exactly? It’s hard to say unless you’re a patent expert or an intellectual property lawyer. According to Journal du Geek, Cowboy sent a letter to eBikeLabs’ lawyers on April 11, 2023. The company says that Cowboy’s technology had been developed independently from that of eBikeLabs.
While eBikeLabs filed a patent in January 2022, it hasn’t yet been published by the French administration in charge of intellectual property (INPI). This can typically take 18 months.
However, Cowboy was well aware that eBikeLabs had filed a patent for the field adaptation algorithm. The Cowboy team was given an early chance, before February 2022, to test that feature on Cowboy bikes.
When talking about the field adaptation algorithm, eBikeLabs’ CTO Colin Valière said ‘this is really one of the main features expected in the [Cowboy 5]. It’s already up and running. Of course, there is much work to do before it’s completely final, but we have tested it again today and it works.’
‘You mentioned patents there, could you a bit explain your protection strategy?’ Cowboy co-founder and hardware director Karim Slaoui asked moments later.
‘Yes, so we applied for a first patent for this technology,’ eBikeLabs CEO Maël Bosson said. He then said that it is quite difficult to make it work reliably as the data from the controller isn’t always accurate. He also mentioned that it is quite difficult to get an intuitive ride feeling. ‘Our strategy was to protect this way of doing [it] because we believe it’s the best way to do it, intuitive[ly], which is of course of very high value.’
Laurent Etorre, Cowboy’s Engineering Project Manager for the powertrain, then asked a follow-up question about eBikeLabs’ patent strategy. ‘I have one question about the patent. Would it be easy to detect any infringement? Because one of the difficulties of the patent is to be able to prove that there is an infringement,’ he said.
‘If you are a competitor and you want to try to do something similar, and you see that someone has patented it, you might think that you will not start because you will have a high risk,’ Bosson answered.
Both companies are risking a lot with these lawsuits as the pressure is real for all of the newer entrants in the e-bike industry — Cowboy and eBikeLabs included.
While Cowboy is a bigger company than eBikeLabs, the electric bike industry is much bigger than these two companies. According to the Confederation of the European Bicycle, E-Bike, Parts & Accessories Industries, there were 5 million e-bikes sold in Europe in 2021.
In addition to existing bicycle companies now selling e-bikes (Trek, Giant, etc.), there are several new entrants trying to capture some market share in this growing market, such as VanMoof, Moustache and Rad Power Bikes.
Cowboy and VanMoof in particular have positioned themselves as technology companies and raised money from startup VC funds. VanMoof — the Dutch startup that makes bikes with a sleek design that many people confuse with Cowboy’s — in fact holds the title currently for raising the biggest single funding round to date in the e-bike space. That was also in those heydays of 2021.
On the one hand, Cowboy wants to avoid bad publicity. It is a bigger and better known company than eBikeLabs. Cowboy may even think that eBikeLabs is trying to make a name for themselves at Cowboy’s expense.
On the other hand, eBikeLabs took a radical decision when it signed an exclusivity contract with Cowboy. It has yet to generate meaningful revenue and it even plans to raise some new funding through another equity crowdfunding campaign in the coming weeks. The startup will also face competitive pressure from larger e-bike motor manufacturers, such as Bosch and Shimano. eBikeLabs could run out of time and options sooner rather than later.
That’s why it’s going to be interesting to see what’s going to happen in the coming weeks: time is money, so both companies will likely want to resolve the case as quickly as possible.
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