Switching Gears

Jumping off the corporate treadmill to help steer her brother’s e-bike business played into Mary Chong’s passion for sustainability

When Mary Chong’s parents fled China’s Cultural Revolution to the safe haven of Hong Kong in 1956, they left behind most of their possessions and an unfinished high-school education. In the burgeoning manufacturing hub, her parents quickly found work in the garment industry, and, after grasping the mechanics of manufacturing, soon opened a small clothing business in their own apartment. “My brother and I grew up with sewing machines all around us,” says Chong, “so we were always makers from that perspective.”

As it turned out, entrepreneurialism would become the fabric of their lives. When the family relocated to Canada in 1969, the Chong children grew up to become makers too, not of clothing but of software programs. Graduating from the University of Waterloo with degrees in math and computer science, Mary and her brother Henry launched careers in information technology. Twenty years later, Henry needed to channel his boundless creativity and went back to school, studying industrial design at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. An avid cyclist, he focused on bicycles as a mode of urban transportation and designed a compact electric bike.

With $10,000 prize money from the MaRS UpStart Award, $200,000 in Ontario government grants and roughly $30,000 through crowdfunding, Henry convinced his sister to help him refine his plans to produce a prototype for the bike. Her brother’s vision meshed with her interest in clean energy and sustainable living, so leaving her 34-year career in IT at IBM was a natural move. “I was the Worldwide Channel Enablement Lead for IBM’s Smarter Cities certification programs,” Chong explains. “I loved my career with IBM, but this was a chance to work with my brother on something that has actual direct impact.”

In 2012, Henry founded Toronto-based Revelo Electric Corp. to produce and market his FLEX e-bike, a portable bicycle that folds up in 10 seconds or less. At just 15 kg (the weight of a standard set of golf clubs), the aluminum FLEX can travel up to 32 km on a single charge and cruises at up to 28 km/h using a Samsung 36-volt lithium cell battery. The patented chainless Dual Mode Crank design makes switching between pedalling or gliding a cinch.

“It’s so portable, you can take it anywhere,” says Mary, “and the radically different design of the ergonomics, the shock-absorbing cushioned seat, makes it easy and comfortable to ride.” No wonder they won this year’s ACCE Most Innovative Entrepreneur Award.

The Chong siblings’ journey together has now come full circle. These days, Henry is often wheeling and dealing back in China – a huge potential market for the FLEX – and his sister takes on additional family responsibilities here in Canada while he’s on the road. “Whenever he travels, I take care of his kids,” she says. “It’s really helped this startup work; it’s a good partnership.” Sounds like they’re on a roll.