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Shane Chen of Inventist at his workbench with the Solowheel Iota prototype
Shane Chen of Inventist at his workbench with the Solowheel Iota prototype. (Tim Ellis Photo)

You may not have heard of Inventist, but if you’ve spent much time walking the streets of downtown Seattle lately, you’ve probably seen Shane Chen’s inventions. I had a chance to interview Chen at the Camas, Wash., headquarters of his company Inventist this weekend to talk about his history inventing small electric personal vehicles; his latest project, Iota; and his ongoing battle with Chinese copycats.

The 61-year-old inventor has had an interesting career since first coming to the U.S. from China thirty years ago. After starting a successful scientific instruments company and growing it for fifteen years, Chen “got kinda bored,” leading him to sell the scientific instrument company and found Inventist to focus on personal transportation inventions.

His first product at Inventist was the AquaSkipper, a human-powered hydrofoil, followed by a three-wheeled scooter he licensed to Razor as the PowerWing.

Following a pair of successes in human-powered vehicles, in 2010 he got into the world of electric vehicles with the invention of the Solowheel. The Solowheel gained popularity and built a decent following as Chen toured it to trade shows. It was at one of these trade shows that he got the idea for his next big product.

In 2012, after seeing his daughter showing off with one Solowheel on each foot, he came up with the concept for the Hovertrax—a self-balancing two-wheeled board, which he Kickstarted in 2013. Unfortunately, the Hovertrax was quickly copied by Chinese factories and exploded in popularity (and in some cases, literally) in late 2015 as so-called “hoverboards.”

An image from the original Hovertrax Kickstarter campaign.

At one point during the height of the “hoverboard” craze, as many as 600 factories in China were making knockoff products. It became too much for Chen to fight on his own, so he licensed the Hovertrax to Razor, which has been suing the Chinese copycats to protect Chen’s invention. Despite the troubles he has faced with rampant copying of his inventions, he still works with Chinese factories to produce his products.

Having grown up in China gives Chen a unique perspective on the challenge of Chinese copycat products flooding the market.

“China is still a Communist country, but now they’re getting into capitalism—they want to make money,” Chen explains. “The Communist idea is to share everything. There’s no such thing as intellectual property… ideas should be free. I think all the Chinese factories are still having that idea. They just think, ‘oh, there’s something great shown off in the US, we should make that too.'”

While seeing others profit from his invention does make him angry, Chen is also surprisingly understanding. “Most factories that make ‘hoverboards’ actually didn’t copy from me, they didn’t even know me,” shared Chen. “They copied from other factories. They just said, ‘OK, everybody is making this hot item, I want to get into that too.’ In that case, they’re kind of innocent, they really don’t know.”

The Solowheel Iota by Shane Chen
The Solowheel Iota by Shane Chen

Chen’s latest invention is a cross between the Solowheel and the Hovertrax. He calls it the Iota, and it’s currently in its final days on Kickstarter.

“People like the Hovertrax because it’s easier to learn, but not as good as Solowheel to really ride around outside,” said Chen, explaining the inspiration for the Iota, “so I should make one with two wheels that’s still easier to learn, but the two wheels should be between your feet.”

Solowheel, Hovertrax, and Iota
Solowheel, Hovertrax, and Iota
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