TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - A former Merrill Lynch derivatives trader with a passion for Star Wars is preparing to take his flying motorbike start-up public in Japan.
Tokyo-based ALI Technologies was founded by Mr Shuhei Komatsu as a drone maker in 2016 before moving on to more ambitious ventures, opening sales of its Xturismo Limited bike in October. The US$777,000 (S$1.1 million) single-person transporter can hit a maximum speed of 80kmh and travel up to 40 minutes per charge, according to the company.
The motorbike has so far largely figured as a curio at public events such as a recent baseball game, but ALI president Daisuke Katano said there is strong interest in it from Middle Eastern nations.
"The need for these bikes will be higher in places with desert or other difficult terrain," Mr Katano said in an interview. "The vehicle will enable people to travel where roads are bad and inaccessible to cars, as well as across bodies of water."
The company has selected lead underwriters for an initial public offering (IPO) on Tokyo's Mothers market for start-ups in what will be the country's first debut of its kind. It is presently engaged in discussions with the Tokyo Stock Exchange, Mr Katano said, declining to specify an estimated valuation or a timeline for the offering.
Flying personal vehicles have been the stuff of science fiction for decades before Star Wars, which featured a famous racing scene with pods zooming along close to ground level.
Electric air transport is now moving closer to reality as the first wave of designs by start-ups like Joby Aviation reaches maturity and developers tap investors for funding. Billions of dollars flowed into the sector in 2021, as well as an impressive number of orders, mostly from commercial airlines. The next 18 months will be pivotal for the fledgling industry as manufacturers run vital test flights and finalise plans for so-called vertiports, and regulators consider how best to guarantee safety.
The ALI motorbike is not intended to fly far up in the air, primarily helping to traverse inhospitable terrain. It is built like an enlarged drone with a traditional motorcycle seat and steering on top.
Mr Komatsu has described his aim as realising an "air mobility society", where cars, motorbikes and other vehicles can transport people in the sky.
ALI has attracted investment from several well-known Japanese firms, including Sega Sammy Holdings, Nagoya Railroad, Nakanihon Air Service, Kyocera and Mitsubishi Electric. Soccer star Keisuke Honda, who played for the national team at the 2018 World Cup, is also a backer.
ALI's drones were the first thing to attract investors, but the start-up is also developing capabilities in artificial intelligence and blockchain tech, a Nagoya Railroad spokesman said.
While a successful IPO will make ALI the only listed company in Japan that specialises in next-generation air mobility, several peers are already trading on New York exchanges. They include Joby, Archer Aviation, Lilium NV and Vertical Aerospace.
Joby, which has a market capitalisation of more than US$3 billion, is close to commercialising what the industry calls eVTOLs, or electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft. These flying taxis are battery-powered and, the companies say, destined to fly without a pilot once regulations allow.
ALI will aim for a unicorn valuation - US$1 billion or more - over the long term, Mr Katano said. But the company has yet to decide on the best way to categorise its vehicle, which will depend on discussions with local regulators where the product is sold.
"We think our aircraft could be categorised differently to existing airplanes," Mr Katano said. "It doesn't travel on the ground, but still flies closer to land and at low altitudes."