Locolla Limited – The AI journey of bike sharing

Bicycle sharing has become a green travel option for city dwellers in recent years. However, the initial launch of the service in Hong Kong was met with controversies, such as road obstruction and random parking. Locobike is currently the only bike-sharing brand in Hong Kong, and its success is attributed to the team’s focus on proper fleet management. Through the use of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), Locobike can accurately locate its bikes and provide the team with real-time instructions on how to deploy and maintain them. This strikes a balance between social responsibility and the public’s need for mobility and helps society reduce carbon emissions in the long term.

Locolla founder and CEO Ken Ching Chun-ho. (Photo source: Locolla)

Locolla founder and CEO Ken Ching Chun-ho (front row, second from left) with the company team. (Photo source: Locolla)

Mr Ken Ching Chun-ho, currently a PhD student in the Department of Electrical Engineering at City University of Hong Kong (CityU), founded start-up Locolla with his team in 2017 and established the Locobike bike-sharing platform. Users can find the location of their bikes through an app and unlock them by scanning the QR code on the bike’s body with their mobile phone camera. This provides the public with a fast and affordable self-service bike rental service. Locolla is also one of the start-ups incubated and invested in by CityU’s HK Tech 300 Angel Fund. 

Artificial intelligence for fleet management paves the way to success

The Locobike, a light blue bicycle, is a common sight on cycling tracks during the holidays. In its early days, however, it did not have a smooth ride. It had to compete with overseas brands, bikes were vandalised, and some users parked irresponsibly. “At its peak, there were seven bike-sharing companies in Hong Kong. They all invested a lot of money to capture the market, but did not address issues such as bike management and social responsibility,” said Ken.

He said that Locobike was the first operator to sign a code of conduct with the government to commit to a certain quality of service. They met with the authority every two weeks to discuss solutions to the problem of random parking of bikes, and committed to managing their fleet well to have a positive impact on the community and to be socially responsible.

Locolla founder and CEO Ken Ching Chun-ho (middle) and his HK Tech 300 mentor, Professor Alan Lam Hiu-fung, CEO of Gravity Capital Partners Co. Ltd. Hong Kong (second from right). (Photo source: Locolla)

The move from “melee” to exclusivity isn’t just about a paper contract; it’s about the team seeking innovation and focusing on solving the pain points of fleet management through research and technology. “Since 2019, I had been thinking about building a fleet management system using AI and IoT. I believe that the application of innovative technologies can make a significant difference in the field of transport, mobility and ‘micromobility’ (meaning alternatives to travel using small, lightweight transport such as bicycles and electric scooters.), thereby contributing to sustainable, eco-friendly and low-carbon mobility,” Ken added. 

In-depth research to develop a patented AI engine

“I was lucky to meet Professor Lam at that time,” Ken recalled. Professor Alan Lam Hiu-fung is the Chief Executive Officer of Gravity Capital Partners Co. Ltd. Hong Kong, an entrepreneurial mentor of HK Tech 300, and an Adjunct Professor in CityU’s Department of Electrical Engineering. Ken says Professor Lam has a wealth of experience in AI and IoT and was willing to provide him with guidance and support. With Professor Lam’s encouragement, Ken joined HK Tech 300 and became part of the HK Tech 300 innovation ecosystem in 2022 when he started his PhD studies in CityU’s Department of Electrical Engineering.

Currently, Ken’s team manages their fleet of bikes using a combination of online and offline methods. They monitor the location and wear and tear of the shared bikes through a proprietary and patented “Loco AI Engine”, an intelligent deployment system that incorporates big data analytics. The system can instantly notify patrol teams to deal with unattended bikes in the shortest possible time and distance across all districts, mobilise bikes from low-demand areas to high-demand areas and carry out related maintenance. This not only reduces the negative impact of bike sharing, but also helps meet the travel needs of the public and reduce labour costs.

He added that the system’s AI technology has been able to deeply learn and evolve with the data collected from the operation over the past few years, making the system an “encyclopaedia” of the cycle tracks in the New Territories. The technology was also selected by the Transport Department early last year to join the third phase of a year-long pilot project on the use of electric mobility devices on an approximately four-kilometre section of the Pak Shek Kok Cycle Track to pilot the shared use of power-assisted pedal cycles

Meet the 3-in-1 instructor, develop marketable solutions

After a lot of hard work, Locobike is now firmly established in Hong Kong. But it still needs support to go faster and further. Ken appreciated the support of HK Tech 300 in providing HK$1 million in angel fund investment to help the team research and develop new technologies, expand their business and increase their market share. It has also strengthened their links with academia, research organisations and industry by providing them with an extensive network of experts, entrepreneurs and investors from various fields, helping them to better integrate their research results into the day-to-day operations.

Professor Lam is currently both Ken’s HK Tech 300 entrepreneurial mentor and his PhD supervisor. His role as an investor also brings business support to the company. Professor Lam said that he appreciated Locobike’s new business model a lot. While many operators in the past have focused only on business volume but lacked management, he recognised that Locobike had set up effective local cycling officers to focus on managing the placement of bikes in a particular area. In the long run, he believes that the team will need to use AI automation to enable the company to scale and achieve significant growth.

“Professor Lam has helped us bring in investment to expand our business, develop new products and expand our markets, and he has research meetings with us every week to discuss business strategies, technological challenges and market opportunities. We work together to formulate solutions that will help us improve and innovate to sustain our business,” said Ken. Both of them also often discuss academic and management ideas, including how to use deep technology to solve real-life problems and how to strengthen research collaboration with universities to build a network of talent.

Locolla’s bike-sharing platform, Locobike, is currently the sole bike-sharing service provider in Hong Kong. (Photo source: Locolla)

HK Tech 300 promotes business development by linking industry, academia and research

After seven years, Locobike has more than 500,000 registered users, the number of bikes has increased from 200 to more than 10,000, and the number of employees has grown from four to more than 70. Going forward, the company plans to deepen its presence in the Hong Kong market, including continuing to work with the government to develop and operate the first two-kilometre smart cycle track on Hong Kong Island, and supporting the research and development of related apps and IoT systems, in line with the government’s plan to promote green mobility in the new towns. 

Locobike is also actively developing markets in the mainland and Southeast Asia. It recently announced a partnership with Shell’s Asia Pacific licensee to deploy its newly developed power-assisted pedal cycle “E-LocoBike” and electric scooter “Locoter” in various campuses and resorts across mainland China, providing green mobility solutions for local users. Last year, the team travelled with HK Tech 300 to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to participate in the launch of the HK Tech 300 Southeast Asia Start-up Competition.

“HK Tech 300 has attracted many investors and venture capital funds, which enables us to network with investors and attract more external investment opportunities to support our business development,” said Ken. “HK Tech 300 is a huge and open start-up accelerator offering extensive networking opportunities, bringing together professionals and entrepreneurs from different fields, successfully linking academics and entrepreneurs, and bringing together dedicated people from industry and the investment community to provide start-ups with opportunities for business expansion, partner matching, market development and external investment, and to jointly build a vibrant innovation ecosystem,” added Professor Lam.

(May 2024)