Difference Maker

Izhar Gafni invents a cardboard bicycle that may revolutionize transportation

His two-wheeled creation, a $20 bike made out of cardboard, could revolutionize bicycling, especially in the developing world.

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    Israeli inventor Izhar Gafni holds one of his cardboard bicycles, which could improve transportation from congested cities to remote villages.
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Izhar Gafni smiles and shakes his head in wonder when asked about the whirlwind of events that have taken place since news of his revolutionary cardboard bicycle first made international headlines a few weeks ago.

"It's all happened so fast, and we did not expect it at all," exclaims Mr. Gafni, a heavyset man who displays all the qualities of an archetypal inventor – a rapid, if somewhat erratic thought process; a tendency to forget the point he is trying to make; and pure delight when describing his next challenge or idea.

Gafni, who has not had even a minute to consider how to properly market or promote his lightweight and extremely low-cost bicycle, has instead spent the best part of the past several weeks entertaining journalists and television crews, responding to throngs of cycling enthusiasts, and starting to develop potential business partners who have contacted him from around the globe.

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Those who have visited Gafni's home and workshop in Moshav Ahituv, a settlement near Hadera on Israel's northern coast, and witnessed the colorful 20-pound bicycle in action agree that this two-wheel creation could revolutionize cycling in general and enhance methods of transportation in the developing world in particular.

"I know that on one side people are interested in having the fastest and latest technology, but I also think there is a real need and a craving for things like this that are simple and easy to use," says Gafni, likening his simplistic bicycle to a wristwatch.

"People don't really need watches anymore: They have clocks on their TVs, on their computers, and even on their phones, but everyone still wants one because it's useful and looks good," he quips.

We are sitting together in what could only be described as a typical inventor's backyard. Pieces of his previous creations are strewn across the grass, while a mismatch of various unsuspecting items make do as garden furniture – the driver's seat from an old, worn-out car; an oversized wooden spool that was most likely used to store wire; and a few wooden crates for the stream of visitors to sit on.

A few feet to the right of Gafni's modest house sits the run-down workshop where he spent numerous hours over the past year and a half trying to turn simple pieces of cardboard into a material strong enough and durable enough to be used for building a multipurpose bicycle.

Just a few yards from the small shed's crooked door stands the much-talked-about invention. There is no doubt that it is an attractive gadget. The large seat is spray-painted an inviting shade of cherry red, while the wheels and frame – a shiny pale blue – sparkle in the sun.

While it is clearly less high-tech than many of the bicycles on the market today, Gafni's design has most of the same practical features. In addition, he says, the bike will soon have an environmentally friendly brake system and a pedaling mechanism that he is currently developing using a variety of recyclable materials.

All will be revealed in the coming months, promises Gafni, who has created a company based on his unique designs called I.G. Cardboard Technologies.

Getting to this point in the development of his cardboard bicycle has been a labor of love.

As an amateur cycling enthusiast, Gafni was inspired to create a bicycle using common cardboard following a visit four years ago to a local cycling store, he says.

"We were all chatting in the store, and somehow started discussing how someone had built a canoe out of cardboard," he recalls. "It was this canoe that was sitting in the back of my head when it suddenly struck me: Why not make a bicycle out of cardboard, too?"

Even though friends and experts warned him that it could not be done, Gafni refused to give up, growing ever more determined to take on what appeared to be an impossible challenge.

"There is really no knowledge of how to work with cardboard except for using it to make packages," he explains, describing how he started to explore the material, which is essentially made from wood pulp, folding it in a variety of ways like origami and adding a mixture of glue and varnish to get it to the strength he desired.

When he finished building the first model, Gafni, who weighs about 250 pounds, and a friend of a similar weight, took turns riding the bike. "It was a really exciting moment, a real triumph that it withheld our weight and did not crumble or collapse," Gafni recalls.

At that moment he realized that creating a usable bicycle made of cardboard was not impossible after all.

The moment of glory passed fairly quickly, says Gafni, who quickly went back to work perfecting his design, which, despite the launch of his first model, is still only in the developmental stages.

"It is still a work in progress, and we are still looking at how to create a design that can be mass-produced," says Gafni, who together with his business partner, Nimrod Elmish, hopes to sell the bicycle to markets in Africa in the near future.

Mr. Elmish, who represents the Israeli high-tech incubation company ERB, says he is hoping to use various kinds of funding, including government grants and rebates for using green materials, to ultimately reduce much of the production cost and allow the bikes to be sold at retail for no more than $20.

"There is no doubt that cheap bikes at $20 a pop could really transform the lives of people living in poor countries who need to walk ... to get to a clinic for medical treatment or find work," says Karin Kloosterman, founder and editor of the Middle East's premier environmental news website, Green Prophet. She has closely monitored the development of Gafni's bike.

"Whether consumers from India to New York will buy it, I can't say," she says. But the bike's low retail price could also make it attractive to people in wealthier countries who often have their bikes stolen or lost and do not want to invest too much money in buying a new one, she points out.

"If the value is reduced to nothing more than a small, plastic shopping cart you find at grocery stores, then it will really take the stress out of protecting your bike," Ms. Kloosterman says.

The bicycle's design is representative of a "new trend by designers to push the limits of common, everyday materials," she adds. "What Izhar Gafni is doing with cardboard opens designers' and inventors' minds to undervalued materials, and new and more sustainable ways of creating useful objects."

"It's amazing that Gafni has taken something that everyone knows and everyone wants [a bicycle] and reinvented it so that everyone can actually have it," says Sharona Justman, cofounder and co-chair of The Israel Conference, a US-based initiative that showcases the brightest and best inventions from Israel. She plans to feature the bicycle at the group's annual conference early next year.

Ms. Justman, visiting Gafni's workshop, adds that the bicycle is not only an ecologically sound product – as most bikes are – but that it is also a very democratic product. "Because of its affordable price, everyone will be allowed the chance to purchase one," she says.

"It's also a beautiful design," she adds, stroking the red varnished seat.

Clearly proud of what Justman calls "the bicycle that everyone will want," Gafni says that he is now laying the groundwork for several other models, including a children's push bike, a version designed especially for women, and one designed for older children.

"As soon as things get quieter," he adds, he wants to start using his magic cardboard formula to design a lightweight and affordable wheelchair for the developing world.

• To learn more about Gafni's cardboard bicycle project, go to www.cardboardtech.com.

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