Gear and Gadgets

NRG Power Stem: The fundamental design flaw that defies its very purpose (for me)

The NRG stem excited me for its idea. Then I figured that not all ideas implement well.

Crowdfunding and cycling remains a very promising and very disappointing combination. Lots of hopeful startups have sought for an innovation-friendly crowd. Lots have failed to find that crowd. Lots have failed to deliver the innovation that they promised. Few have succeeded. Unfortunately, that’s what you should expect. It’s certainly not an abnormal deviation from the normal failure rate of investments into startups.

And here’s another company that’s going to fail on Kickstarter: NRG Stems.

Let me be clear: I love their product idea. I found their original product pitches long before they appeared on Kickstarter. Back in 2017 I came across the product when Cyclingindustry.news reported about it. I actually was surprised that a Kickstarter project followed. And yet here they are, 30 days into their campaign, 30 days from the end of the campaign, and they have reached .5 of a percent of their funding goal.

This must be one of the most disappointing funding experiences ever.

The product

I carry a few electronics on big rides. Phone, watch, GoPro, microphone, and bike light compose my standard setup for multi-day trips. I’ve been a big fan of navigating and recording via my phone for years. However, for very long rides (150km+) and extended train rides by train to/and from the ride area, battery life was a bit of a limiting factor. External batteries provide an obvious solution for on-the-go charging, but they are difficult to mount to the bike.

The NRG stem is the external battery. You charge it and discharge it by a USB/Micro USB port. It’s weather resistant: you don’t need to worry that a rainy ride destroys your stem. The capacity suffices to recharge a normal flagship phone of 2019 once. I’d be able to go for 250km with internet on all the time and still I’d have some juice left in my Samsung Galaxy S7.

The NRG stem integrates a battery into your stem.

The stem weighs in at 240g. That’s about twice the weight of my current stem. It’s less than the weight of my current stem plus an external battery of the capacity, and I’m not yet considering the weight of whatever solution I’d have to mount the external battery to my handlebar. As the NRG stem provides an integrated solution, I don’t have to factor in aerodynamic loss from the external battery.

The flaw

Yet I will not be the seventh backer to invest into the project. And here’s a very simple reason for that: in order to switch the battery in the stem on (or off), I need to press a button on the top of the stem.

Too bad.

The button stays hidden under my phone mount.

The button of the NRG stem would sit just underneath the Quadlock mount.

Of course, I could switch to an out-front mount for the phone. Admittedly, I chose the Quadlock stem mount originally because at the time there simply wasn’t another option. But now I also have a GoPro. I insist that GoPro videos desperately need more than the butt-of-the-guy-in-front-of-you perspective. For instance, on both solo and group rides I do make selfie clips.

Think of me drinking a water bottle in slow-motion. Turns out to be a scene that I include in many videos. Check this one out.

For the sake of these videos, an out-front mounted phone is not an option. It’s gonna block the camera. For camera-equipped rides, the stem is the optimal position. And so it blocks the power button of the NRG stem.

The button must be on the side.

I’m wondering if it can be placed on the side or if that compromises the stability and stiffness of the stem. (There’s that part of the equation: A stem isn’t just weight and angle: stiffness has a massive influence on ride comfort and power efficiency. A good stem is very stiff, but not 100% stiff.) Principally, it’s a square design, so it shouldn’t matter much for the internals.

There’s another argument in favor of placing the button on the side. And, for that matter, also the USB port, which currently sits on the underside of the stem. See, I achieved one of the biggest speed gains in my current bike setup when I reversed the stem. Stems are usually constructed with an angle. The NRG stem has a somewhat unusual 5° angle. (More typical angles are 3° and 7°.) That means it’s raising the handlebar by additional 5° compared to if there was no angle in the stem. You get more comfort, but less aerodynamics from that.

The red circle marks the angle in the stem. Here it’s pointing 5° higher than a straight stem without angle would.

However, you could just flip this thing 180° and assemble it upside down. Now the power button is on the bottom and the USB ports are on top. Any so-called Ahead stem works this way. As a result, you lower the handlebar by 10°. You have to lean down more, sit more stretched. Being less upright, you create less aerodynamic drag. You go faster. I’ve noticed the difference and would put it in the ball-park of about .3km/h on my specific bike. Personally, particularly on longer rides I’ve even felt more comfortable since.

Other flaws: integrated systems age

The Kickstarter launch did create quite some buzz in mainstream online bike media. Road.cc reported about it, and there was a good discussion over at bikeradar.com. Usually, you would expect that more reach translates into more success. That didn’t happen. In fact, the engagement carries a strikingly negative sentiment. The reasons are valid. Here are four of them.

First, the price. It’s 160 GPB or 185 EUR for a very standard stem with integrated battery. Separately purchasing a standard stem and an external battery will be a third of that.

Next, the stem comes in two length options, but no angle options. It fits on touring bikes, but for MTBs and road bikes, where fit is very individual, choices are essentially limited. Sure, there are many people who do not care about fitting their bike position to their needs. Typically they are also less interested in tuning their bikes. Hence, those that accept limited choice are also those that are least likely to go buy an integrated stem on Kickstarter.

Batteries degrade over time. There is no independent testing how far that happens with the NRG stem. However, as the battery ages, it will do less effectively what it’s meant for. Consider that at the same time it’s exposed to temperature shifts, humid environments, and sun. Charge by charge, the added weight that serves as a battery will transform into dead weight.

Not all devices that I want to charge on the go I can charge on the go. Take the GoPro. The case of the GoPro does not allow me to access the charging port. Very likely I also would not want to, as I’d expose the camera to dust (at the very least, and maybe humidity). My bike light has a hidden charging port as well, as has my watch. Out of all my devices, it’s good for my phone.

Finally, you won’t just remove the stem after every ride to recharge it in your home. I store my bike in the apartment. Most people don’t. They could charge by means of an external battery. That’s no problem at home. Here I am again thinking about multi-day rides. Originally I found enthusiasm over the stem because it would allow me to get rid of an external battery. Except when, actually, it doesn’t in the context that I’d most likely need it.

At the beginning there was a great idea for a simple and neat innovation. It’s one of those products you imagine and then you wonder why nobody has done it. As you take a closer look at the NRG stem, I start to understand it. The solution ain’t so simple as it seems. Even a seemingly simple product like this essentially carries various complexities. You need to make choices and each choice reduces the potential market. At the beginning, everyone can subscribe to the abstract idea being awesome. At the end, when put in use, the concrete product will fit for few.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: