Back in 1985 Sir Clive Sinclair launched a one-person battery-powered electric vehicle called the Sinclair C5 to the world and it became an unmitigated commercial disaster.
Fast forward more than three decades and another Sinclair is talking enthusiastically about a different three-wheeled vehicle – the IRIS eTrike. Sir Clive’s nephew Grant says this time it will be different.
More about?the human-powered IRIS eTrike later. When I spoke with Grant, I began by bringing up his famous uncle and the C5 invention that changed his life.
“The C5 had a hard time,” Grant says. “Partly because they didn’t have the infrastructure cycle networks they do now. It was actually one hell of an achievement if you think about it. The C5 was mass produced – it was Hoover who manufactured it – and no one had done an automated bike production line before.
“They were expecting to sell millions and they sold 17,000 units, which is still a big number – and for that time it’s a great achievement. I actually think it was ahead of its time, and that’s why it received its ill reviews.”
Sir Clive was just one of a number of inventors in Grant’s life, alongside his father and close family friend and founder of Acorn Computers, Chris Curry.
“Chris Curry was my dad’s best friend and a very good friend of my uncle’s,” Grant recalls. “I grew up knowing him very well; whether it was parties or the pub, Chris Curry was always there.
“When his business exploded, he was the fifth wealthiest person in the UK and my uncle was the sixth. I remember going around trade shows with Chris Curry and my dad and uncle – I’d get so much great info from them.
“I remember Chris Curry would throw these amazing parties. He actually bought a village in Cambridge and would get a friend of his from school who had a fireworks business to put on some amazing shows.
“I just remember there being lots of celebs at these parties and really exciting people at the time, like Janet Street Porter.”
Sir Clive Sinclair
Acquaintances such as Curry are one thing, but surely having such a well-known surname could have been a hindrance as well as a help to Grant’s career?
“The name has been a huge help,” Grant insists with real passion. “It really has helped me huge amounts as people see it as a very pioneering name. I do find however that many people forget about all the incredible things my uncle has done and just remember the C5.
“If you look back at all the things he created it really is astonishing: he invented the first low cost kit computers that no one else had done as well as the first flatscreen television.”
The name may have helped in many aspects of Grant’s life, but it certainly didn’t guarantee a job at his uncle’s company.
“I remember going for a job when I was 14 at Sinclair Research and I had to have an interview with the MD,” he recalls.
“I didn’t just automatically get a job because it was my uncle. They had me waiting for hours! I didn’t always work for family businesses growing up either; I worked for many Cambridge businesses too.
“I remember one day flicking through the Yellow Pages and faxing my CV to every technology company in Cambridge. I got quite a few little techie jobs growing up – it was nice to have a job outside of the family business.”
Growing up as the son and nephew of two influential inventors, Grant’s childhood was just as exciting as you might imagine.
“There were always prototypes lying around,” Grant says. “My dad designed a dining table called Saturn which was a round glass table and we had the prototype at ours. There were always other gadgets knocking around the house too, whether they were my uncle’s or father’s.
“One of my early experiences of knowing I was part of a very entrepreneurial family was when my father designed a low-cost flatpack lamp around 30-40 years ago – the sort of thing you’d see in Ikea these days.
“He got an order from Habitat and Liberties for it and we had to rope in all the neighbours to send all the orders out. The house was full of them!?As kids we were making camps out of the boxes. There are still some knocking around in the loft now.”
Grant’s early inventions ignited an air of entrepreneurialism in him, and were greatly inspired by both his father and his uncle.
“After time at Sinclair Research and various other roles I went on to work for my father’s company,” he explains. “My father invented the first credit card-sized torch and the first white LED torch too. The credit card-sized knife he invented was a huge hit and became the best-selling knife in America.
“It was at that stage when I started creating a credit card-sized camera. I drew up a concept and then it took me about a year to meet up with everyone, the suppliers and manufacturers etc.?
“I then showed it to quite an established camera brand and they instantly made an order of 10,000 units (worth £1m) on the spot. So then I thought, ‘why don’t I just do this myself?’”
Grant Sinclair on the C5, left, and today in his IRIS eTrike
The idea for the IRIS eTrike came in unlikely surroundings at a garden party in Cambridge not long after.
“Someone gave me a little remote control helicopter,” he remembers. “We were all having a drink in the garden, it was a beautiful hot summer’s day and I was flying this helicopter as high as possible; it kept crashing to the ground and I’d just pick it back up and fly it again.
“It didn’t break and I just thought ‘my God, why has no one built a bike like this?’ The IRIS eTrike is a bit like a remote control helicopter – it has the same battery technology, which is very powerful.”
So what makes it different to the troubled C5 and why will the ending be different?
“It’s fully enclosed, and much higher up than the C5,” Grant explains. “It’s much higher up in price point too – the C5 in today’s money equates to about £1,400 whereas the IRIS is about £3,000. There is a cycle to work scheme though too: if you buy a new IRIS through that, you can get it for £1,400.
“It’s like being inside a very large crash helmet: if you’re driving in traffic it doesn’t feel intimidating driving alongside cars. The whole point is if you’re aged 14 years or older you can ride it on the cycle paths without a licence or insurance because it’s classified as a bike. It’s a safer product, it’s nippy and great for commuters.”
And what Grant’s team lacks in size it certainly makes up in expertise.
“Currently we’re quite a small team, but we have a big portfolio of experts,” he says. “I work with the same people who work with McLaren supercars – so if I need a mechanical expert I know exactly who to go to. It’s a small team but the expertise is massive. I have decades of contacts so if I need anyone I can definitely find them.
“If, for example, I want the layout to go into mass production I’ve got people I can call on. I am also thinking of expanding the team in the near future to bring some of my contacts in-house.”
With a plethora of game-changing inventions in his back pocket, Grant’s future certainly doesn’t look like its slowing down.
“I’m interested in doing a very innovative low-cost kit house – that’s what I’m working on next. I want people to be able to order it online, for it to arrive in the back of a lorry and then people can live in it. I’m also working on an electric car at the moment too.”
A traditional entrepreneur in every sense, Grant’s advice to fellow inventors is to simply follow their instincts.
“Keep going until you get it right,” Grant says. “It could take years, it could take a lifetime – but don’t stop trying. If I look at my most successful products, or my uncle’s and father’s, the simpler the better – so get rid of complexity.
“The business model is key too – when the knife exploded online, we should have focused on selling it online rather than looking to sell it in shops.
“Keep your business model as simple as possible and focus on selling it through one outlet, otherwise you spread yourself too thinly.”
BELOW: Flick through the Q2 2017 edition of BusinessCloud’s interactive digital magazine