Lessons from SEA Founders #3: James Chan of ION Mobility

Q1: Hi James thanks for taking some time from your schedule for this interview! Before we begin, could you give us a brief introduction of yourself for our readers?

My name is James Chan, and I’m the founder and CEO of ION Mobility. I just turned 40 earlier this year and am a happily married father of 3 children; a boy and 2 younger girls. I’m a multi-disciplinary investor-entrepreneur who has sat on all 3 sides of the table in my 15 years since leaving college with my Bachelors and Masters as an Electrical and Computer Engineer; namely as policy maker and industry developer focused on the Infocomm industry in the Singapore Government, as an early-stage internet and hardware venture capitalist and angel investor, and as an technology entrepreneur focused on Southeast Asia.

Q2: What was life like before becoming the Founder and CEO of ION Mobility?

Before ION, I spent the 3 years prior launching and scaling Wecash Southeast Asia, a Southeast Asian fintech business comprised of an online institution-to-peer consumer lending platform and a mobile-centric real-time credit scoring and underwriting servicing. I started our Southeast Asia operations from scratch with zero codebase or models, zero revenue and 5 software developers in Beijing and scaled it to over US$3m revenue a month and teams across 4 countries; 20 in Singapore which was the regional headquarters, product and data science team, 60 in Beijing as our systems and software team and over 450 in our markets in Indonesia and Vietnam. My stake was acquired by my Chinese partner in late 2018 and I took a year more to hand over operations before starting ION Mobility.

Back then, a typical week would see me spend 4 to 5 days of the week in Jakarta, with the occasional trip to Beijing or Ho Chi Minh City. The plane was my bus and airports and hotel rooms became my second home. These days, no thanks to the pandemic, I substitute business travel with plenty of Zoom calls and meetings as I work with the ION Mobility teams across our offices in Singapore, Shenzhen and Jakarta.

Q3: Could you tell us a bit about what inspired you to launch ION Mobility as well as the overall vision of the company?

While I was at Wecash growing our Indonesia consumer lending business, I discovered that Indonesia was the world’s 3rd largest market in new motorbikes sold, behind India (1st) and China (2nd). I also witnessed first-hand the pollution and inefficiency of Indonesia’s transportation network and industry, and saw the subtle industrial policy shifts that gathered speed in 2019 and resulted in Indonesia’s commitment to EV motorbikes in recent years. I had exited my stake in Wecash Southeast Asia and was on the lookout for my next big thing. I concluded that the timing was right to build a Southeast-Asia focused electric and electric mobility start-up to go after this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

ION Mobility’s vision is to be Southeast Asia’s top technology company leading our region’s transition towards a low-carbon economy with electric mobility and energy storage products for consumers across Southeast Asia.

Founded in Oct 2019, our mission is to create affordable, desirable, and sustainable electric-powered mobility for everyone. We are committed to creating great products and seamless user experiences for our customers. Our products combine human-centered design with advanced software and hardware technology to deliver smart electric motorbikes that are for everyone to use, every day.

The company is pushing the frontiers of the region’s EV motorbike industry by developing desirable mobility solutions as clean alternatives for urban users, so as to alleviate urban air pollution and lead the transition to electric and EV solutions across Southeast Asia, starting with the essential and ubiquitous motorbike.

Q4: Did you start with any funding?

I invested personal money to get the company off the ground. We started to raise external capital in Feb 2020 as the pandemic started spreading across the world. It was an interesting period to be hat in hand looking for risk capital. I was fortunate to have sufficient liquidity to jumpstart our capital-intensive hardware play, and was even luckier to have gotten the support of some great investors (including kipleX) during such difficult times. We announced our US$3.3m Series Seed raise in Oct 2020, and more recently the completion of our US$6.8m Seed with US$3.5m more.

Q5: What are ION Mobility’s advantages and unique offerings compared to its regional competitors?

We have yet to unveil our product, so that’s something for us to know and for our regional competitors to find out when the time comes ;-). We have a fair amount of in-house capabilities and are confident in our user research and customer-motorbike segment selection. The team’s been hard at work over the past year and cannot wait to share what we’re building with our potential customers to get feedback, improve and iterate.

You’ll hear more from us in the coming months soon enough!

Q6: Could you share with us how you built your first EV prototype and how you tested it for the market?

True story; we bought a used internal combustion engine (ICE) motorbike and completely gutted it. We modified the non-combustion bits of what was left and mounted our parts in order to obtain our first prototype. We then used it to run around our office’s parking area so as to validate our powertrain assumptions. The ongoing pandemic has made it much harder for us to validate our prototypes in Indonesia despite us having a small team there.

For a product of such scale and size, it’s safe to assume that we’re going to have to keep putting our prototypes through their punishing paces in order to be confident of its performance under real-world conditions. No amount of computer-aided design (CAD) work will be able to completely replace real-world testing data.

Q7: As your headquarters is based in Singapore, what made you decide to focus on the Indonesian market and launch your first product there?

As I’ve pointed out earlier, Indonesia is the world’s 3rd largest market. It is also a market I have spent the three years prior operating full-time in. I also believe the Indonesian government to be the most forward-thinking and committed to the electrification of their motorbike population and development of their EV supply chain and industry in the coming decade. To me, it made complete sense to focus our go-to-market on Indonesia.

Q8: What are your views on the Malaysian EV market and how what are your potential plans to bring your technologies to Malaysia?

Malaysia is Singapore’s nearest land-connected neighbour with a much larger market to boot. I haven’t done enough research as yet, but believe there exists learning and growth opportunities for us to explore especially in Johor Bahru. We remain fully focused on Indonesia for now, but hope to have the bandwidth and resources to set up our early Malaysia presence in time to come.

Q9: As someone who wants to introduce new emerging technologies in Southeast Asia, what are the key steps that you needed to take first? What were the challenges you faced at the start of your journey?

It’s always about the team. At ION Mobility, we’ve got folks spanning the entire range of disciplines, from industrial and product design to mechanical, electrical, embedded systems and firmware and software engineering across our 3 offices. It was a big challenge to try and put our full-stack team together across Singapore, Shenzhen and Jakarta.

Q10: What are the struggles that you have faced when expanding your business internationally? How have you overcome them?

We’ve not launched yet, so a lot of our struggles stem from dealing with pandemic-induced constraints to our inter-team collaboration between offices as well as supply chain-related shocks. Luckily for us, we’re still a small company and do not have large orders to be significantly impacted for now. I also predict the chip crunch to gradually resolve as we head into 2022 next year.

The other struggles we face are the same as all other teams having to deal with remote work amidst these pandemic times. It’s a lot harder for hardware companies like ours to be engaged in remote work, when our engineers need access to special equipment and cannot travel to collaborate with one another. We make do and have adapted our communication and processes to cope. It’s not great, but it’s tolerable and we’ve found our own ways to move forward in spite of the constraints.

Q11: What are the key lessons that you have learned throughout your entrepreneurial journey?

Luck plays a much bigger role in our entrepreneurial journeys than we are willing to admit. It’s important to have healthy doses of self-awareness along the way, and a support network to anchor yourself and your decisions.

Q12: What advice or words of wisdom would you share with other aspiring founders?

Do or don’t; there is no “try”. Most entrepreneurs fail trying, so be mentally prepared and come for the journey and beliefs and not just the imagined outcome or the purported fame. It’s important to develop healthy yardsticks along the way to rejuvenate yourselves on this long, difficult and often lonely journey.

ION Mobility remains on track to unveil its inaugural electric motorbike by the end of this year, and to launch and deliver it to Indonesian customers next year.

Special thanks to James Chan for taking the time to share his inspirations, experience and his lessons!

ION Mobility is a tech company that was founded in 2019 and is on a mission to create and deliver affordable, desirable, and sustainable mobility and energy for everyone. To learn more about ION Mobility, visit their website.