Ion Mobility, a Singapore-based EV startup, was launched during the depths of the pandemic, with a mission to feed Southeast Asia’s demand for new-energy vehicles. Founded by entrepreneur James Chan, the company designs and manufactures electric two-wheelers. In February, Ion closed a $18.7 million series A funding round led by automaker TVS, and launched its first vehicle, the M1-S e-scooter, in November 2022.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us a bit about yourself and why you started Ion Mobility.

In late 2019 — just before the pandemic — I had exited my stakes and handed over the ropes of a Southeast Asian fintech venture I’d venture-built from scratch, partnering with a venture-backed player (Abakus Group, formerly Wecash) from China. 

After a while, once you’ve had your first exit, chasing money becomes hollow real quick. I have three young children, and I wanted to not just inspire them with what I do, but also ensure that I can leave behind a better world for them.

In starting Ion, I wanted to play at the intersection of design, hardware, and software, while doing my part to accelerate the inevitable transition from combustion-engine two-wheelers to full-electric alternatives. They need to be not just well-designed and performant and value-for-money, but also aspirational, and to help reduce air pollution in urban cities. That led to Ion, amid the depths of the pandemic, while remotely building out our teams in Shenzhen and Jakarta without business travel.

The mainstreaming of electric vehicles, particularly two-wheelers, has come far in the past few years. Whats the next breakthrough that needs to happen?

It’s actually not obvious, and can get a bit technical. But unlike cars, buses, and trucks, which all free up a lot more space after you remove combustion-engine elements, motorcycles, by nature, are volumetrically constrained. The more power you want the motorcycle to have, the more batteries you’re going to need to configure it with, and the bigger the dimensions of the motorcycle will have to become. 

The Southeast Asia market has tended towards smaller, more nimble motorcycles —  historically characterized by 110cc, 125cc, and 155cc combustion-engine equivalents that can zip around their crowded roads with constant start-stops (city-cruising speed), while also making that occasional jaunt between towns and cities on highways (highway-cruising speed). 

Unfortunately, the humble motorcycle only has a rear wheel upon which you can affix a motor, unlike cars or buses or trucks. Based on today’s physics, you just can’t tune an electric motor in an EV two-wheeler to be energy-efficient cruising at city speeds, while also being as efficient at highway speeds, in such a small package. This challenge, in trading off between volume, power, and energy density or energy-to-mobility efficiency, is much more exacerbated in EV two-wheelers than in four-wheelers or others.

We’re going to need some breakthrough in motor topology, combined with ongoing advances in battery pack, battery management systems, and battery cell technology, in order to get to a point where the layman consumer can confidently switch over between the two modes. 

What makes Ion Mobility a different player to the rest of the newer crop of EV outfits?

For starters, we’re not buying or white-labelling from China’s electric moped ecosystem to earn a profit on a quick flip to Indonesia. Although we have a wholly owned subsidiary in Shenzhen, we undertake our own design, engineering, and manufacturing functions out of Singapore while having minimal dependency on value-added engineering from consultants. I grew up as a nerd/geek and am engineer-trained, and always believe that we need to eat our own dog food in order to maximize a product’s possibilities.

It’s akin to a Tesla-ish approach, except that I’m not Elon Musk — neither as talented, famous, or financially able to finance my own startup for that long in our early days.

If you weren’t an entrepreneur, what do you think you’d be doing?

That’s always a nice question to dream about. In a parallel multiverse of madness, I might be in the education sector, or applying my energy towards venture-building in Singapore’s state-owned enterprises that are responsible for so much of the city-state’s economy but derive so much of their revenues through rent-seeking. Or I might just pop back into school with my wife and date her again in a college setting, but as MBAs or PhDs.