The French great-nephew of the Hungarian-born inventor of the ballpoint pen is writing his own chapter in innovation with a design of a super-light electric car that is turning heads.
CALAIS — Each generation of the Biro family has had its inventor over the past century. Laszlo set the example in his native Hungary, where he invented the ballpoint pen in 1938. He later sold his patent to Marcel Bich, who founded the French multinational Bic company.
Laszlo's nephews Alain and Guy Biro would later launch a successful company with a state-of-the-art model of fire extinguisher.
Now it's young Damien's turn to take the torch.
In 2009, Damien Biro, son of Alain, won first prize at the prestigious French invention competition Concours Lépine with his first hybrid vehicle, a small cart that operates on gas and electricity. Confirmation of his talent came with a 2014 the gold medal for his latest car, the Pariss.
We get a look at the result of his work in a storage room in the industrial area of the northern city of Calais. It's a shiny sports car, a little roadster with two red leather seats and an electronic tablet instead of a gearshift. Its electric blue color is definitely eye-catching, like its engine, reinforced by a small gas module to avoid worry about recharging.
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The original "Biro ballpoint" pen. Photo: Wikipedia
For the last 10 years, Biro has dedicated all his time to the project. He is single and hasn't even paid himself a proper salary, "defraying" his costs with the funds granted by the 39 investors who have put their trust in him.
He built his model with a team of four people, drawing the molds to build the chassis, entirely in fiberglass, and by slotting in material that had already been used in other cars.
He rekindled the spirit of the pioneers who built the first electric cars in the 19th century, like the "Jamais Contente" (in English, the Never Satisfied), the first to go over 100 kilometers per hour in 1899 before falling into industrial oblivion.
Lifelong love affair
Damien Biro has loved cars for as long as he can remember. When he was five years old, he was already reading everything about them. And yet, when the time came for him to choose a job, he became a pharmacist and then worked three years in a hospital.
"I was told I shouldn't mix my passion and my job," the 37-year-old says.
But in the end, he did yield to his obsession. In the beginning, he worked on his car projects after work and on the weekends. "I knew the future belonged to the electric car, but only if we can make these cars lighter," Damien explains. The heavier they are, the bigger the battery has to be, which dramatically increases a vehicle's price. A car that weighs a half-ton it needs a 2,000-euro ($2,149) battery. If it weighs 1.4 tons, the battery will cost 10,000 euros ($10,800). "It changes everything," he says.
In 2005, he went part-time at the hospital so he could spend more time on the electric car. "It took me five years to get what a specialist would in six months. I had no credibility," he says.
Finally, he managed to assemble his first "hybrid" model. The small cart, which looks like the cult vehicle Mini Moke, was made of ultralight fiberglass. He sold it for 15,000 euros, and its presentation at the Geneva Motor Show and award at the Concours Lépine sparked the interests of the first investors.
To survive, his company Ecomobilys was also distributing other electric vehicles in northern France, but sales didn't take off. "We had a turnover of 600,000 euros in three years," Damien says. Not enough, obviously.
So he set to work again because, in the meantime, the company Tesla had emerged and dramatically altered the electric car market. Why not follow its model and create a high-end vehicle in carbon fiber, light and hybrid, he thought. But that would wait for later, when his brand was established.
The economic model
He has 39 shareholders and 1.8 million euros ($2 million) to see the project through. Renowned companies such as Bosch and Orange have worked with him, allowing the young inventor to have a technical platform in last year's Geneva show. Since then, his small team has been working twice as hard to finalize the vehicle's design. In the end, it is expected to have a "meaner" look that the current version of the little roadster.
Beyond his projects, Damien Biro also has an economic philosophy in line with the theories developed by American sustainability economist Jeremy Rifkin. The inventor believes the car can become a green product that creates jobs locally, because his will be assembled by hand in small workshops. He will also use local products. For instance, he has already insisted on replacing carbon fiber with linen fiber, because the necessary flax plants grow in northern France.
He believes there are very simple reasons why major car manufacturers fail to build such successful economic models. "First of all, they have nothing to gain from it," he says. "The economic balance of their commercial network relies on cars that need to have their oil drained and which every now and then need a new clutch. But most importantly, they have never questioned their factories, which can only mass-produce cars made out of metal that are way too heavy.”
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Lazlo Biro in 1978. Photo: Wikipedia
He swears by "composite" materials and hand assembly, which might sound utopian. And yet, he predicts, "we'll be ready in 2016 or 2017, and we'll only need to sell 100 cars a year to make a profit," he says.
Still, that doesn't keep from dreaming of much bigger numbers. On one condition, though: that the roadster passes the last hurdle and obtains technical approval. "We've done the hardest part, but the costliest lies ahead of us. To get the official green light, we'll need to have 30 cars ready for the tests."
That's when the Biro family will know whether its talent for invention can change the world a third time.