After a thief made off with her bicycle, Becca Mercer needed a way to get around Arizona State University’s Tempe campus during the spring semester of 2014.
The freshman signed up for a free bike from the entrepreneurial startup FreeBike Project, which has commenced its activities at ASU this year.
Utilizing the advertising potential of social media, FreeBike Project partners with sponsoring businesses to provide free bikes to college students.
Company logos are attached to the bikes, and their riders are required to post to social media with a monthly picture of their machines. The riders who post the most pictures become eligible for extra perks from the bike’s sponsor.
The transportation network company Lyft sponsored Mercer’s bike.
“FreeBike is another option for green transportation at ASU, which is really awesome,” Mercer said. “A lot of people skateboard, but I find that biking is a really convenient way to get to class.”
Scott Ferreira, FreeBike’s CEO, said bicycling is an oft-neglected form of campus transportation: “You would be surprised at how many students don’t take advantage of having a bike on campus.”
Ferreira was at the University of Southern California when he first heard about the startup. Danish foreign exchange students Johan Bender and Kim Sanderhoff pitched the idea to him at an entrepreneurial think tank.
“Their Danish background is a big part of what made them think of it, because over in Denmark everybody rides bicycles,” Ferreira said. “You obviously have cars and that kind of stuff, but the bicycle population is a lot stronger than in most cities here in the United States.”
Ferreira, a native of Scottsdale and graduate of Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, had already established himself as one of USC’s most influential young entrepreneurs. In 2005, he co-founded a nonprofit dedicated to reinstating the homeless. In 2011, he and his sister, Stacey, co-founded MySocialCloud, an online password-storage system.
Sanderhoff and Bender asked him if MySocialCloud would be the first company to sponsor a bike, and he agreed.
Since the project’s genesis in 2012, it has secured sponsorships from multiple prominent organizations, including the North Face, AEG Live and the American Heart Association.In 2013, Ferreira joined FreeBike’s team to assume the role of CEO. Since then, the enterprise has since spread from USC to about 20 other schools.
As FreeBike grows its influence on college campuses, it is also making an impact outside of the US.
Partnering with the non-profit Bikes for the World, FreeBike sends a bike to a remote part of the world for every bike received on its college campuses.
In their entrepreneurial classes, FreeBike’s Danish founders had been encouraged to find a “tie-in to a social component” for their project, Ferreira said.
“Bikes for the World came up, and we really liked that they were sending bikes overseas to Third World countries, where bikes have a much greater impact on people’s lives than they do in the United States.”
In 2012 and 2013, bikes went to villages in the Philippines.
“In the Philippines, for instance, if students have to walk from their village to the school, it can sometimes take an hour or two, versus if they have a bike,” Ferreira said. “That time is drastically reduced, and that gives them more time to spend in the village doing whatever they need to do.”
In May 2013, FreeBike helped to donate 100 bikes to the Philippines. Ferreira was unsure of the 2014 recipient, but he said it might be somewhere in Africa.
FreeBike established itself at ASU Tempe this spring after moving its base from LA to Phoenix.
Economically speaking, Phoenix was a more affordable spot, Ferreira said.
“It’s really tough for startups to base themselves there because of the high cost of living,” Ferreira said. “So we started looking elsewhere, and Phoenix sort of came up on the radar because I had grown up in Scottsdale and I had heard from a few friends that they were getting involved in its startup community.”
With the move established, ASU was a promising target for FreeBike. The Tempe campus has been very receptive to the bicycling community, partnering with FreeBike in multiple programs, Ferreira said.
FreeBike plans to start at ASU’s downtown Phoenix campus in August, Ferreira said.
“We believe that ASU is probably going to become one of our biggest campuses, just because there are so many students and so many bikes being ridden around.”
• James Anderson is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is interning this semester for the AFN.