Volagi Cofounder Robert Choi Speaks About Specialized Lawsuit
The story about Specialized’s lawsuit against Volagi Cycles broke a few days ago. Now, the gag order’s up and we had a chance to talk to Robert Choi, cofounder of Volagi about the case. But before we get started:
EDITOR’S NOTE & FULL DISCLOSURE: This is just one side of the story. We’ve reached out to Specialized for comment and will produce a separate article as soon as we are able to talk to them. Zach Overholt, one of our writers, works for Volagi. He is not involved in this court case in any way nor has he contributed to or influenced this article. Only the jury knows all the facts, we are just providing the information available to us. Mercury News, which first broke the story about this case, is scheduled to have a reporter covering the case live if you want the most current story.
BIKERUMOR: You just came out of the first day of court. It was mainly jury selection and normal process stuff, motions to keep or eliminate certain evidence, whether it’s relevant to the case, etc. Anything you can tell us about what’s shaping up?
ROBERT: If you really look at it, this whole thing is irrational. They’re not being rational.
Mike Sinyard claims that this is his bike. In the deposition he mentions the colors black and red, and some other things.
Tomorrow is opening statements, we think this whole thing will go about a week.
BIKERUMOR: Were there prototypes, drawings or renderings of bikes with disc brakes or anything like your Longbow stays when you or Barley (Forsman, the other cofounder of Volagi) worked at Specialized?
ROBERT: No, nothing. They claim that there’s a 2002 Tarmac model that had a split top tube, but you can go back and see a lot of older steel bikes with split top tubes that would meet at the seat tube and become the stays. Those were inspiration for us, but none of them were like the Longbow flex stays that actually use the properties of carbon to improve the ride comfort. Our patent includes mention that the top tube flexes when you sit on it and is independent of any movement at the chainstays.
The design provides comfort usually obtained by stretching the wheelbase and stays, but in a design with tight geometry and sharp handling.
BIKERUMOR: This case has been developing for quite some time, right?
ROBERT: Barley and I gave our notice (at Specialized) on April 12, 2010. We went to Interbike in September of that year and showed two non-rideable models as a concept. One of those model’s primary colors was red, and apparently some Specialized employees saw them and told Mike Sinyard we must have taken their designs.
We never had any access to the trade secrets for any of the high performance bikes. When we came up with the idea for our bike, we thought it was totally unique and new. We didn’t think for a second that Specialized would look at this and think it was anything like one of theirs. During the show, Sinyard came up to us and said that we really put him in an awkward situation, meaning he felt he had to do something because of pressure from his employees.
We got our lawsuit that October 22.
When they filed the lawsuit, we were totally surprised. Disc brakes on a performance road bike were totally new. Our flex seat stays weren’t designed until after we quit, and initially we didn’t even know if it could be patented.
At first, Specialized was accusing us of stealing their design when they filed for a preliminary injunction asking that we halt sales of our bikes. They couldn’t demonstrate that we were harming them in any way, we didn’t even have a bike in the marketplace, so that was defeated. They’ve continued with the lawsuit, and this is the second full revision of the suit. They’ve claimed as many as nine causes in their civil action, now it’s down to three. Now the case isn’t really about us stealing their design, but about us breaching our contract for confidentiality, non-compete and invention assignment. Basically that we took their trade secrets. The suit claims that anything we created or thought of while we were in their employ, whether it was at work or on our own time, that the property was theirs. Because of this, they’re having a hard time coming up with damages. They’re claiming the Longbow seat stay design should be assigned to them and we should pay royalties on it to them.
The case really hinges on when we formulated our ideas. By the time we had really discussed a concept in any detail, we both agreed that we needed to quit and pursue it on our own.
BIKERUMOR: What did you do at Specialized? When did you start there?
ROBERT: We were hired about the same time in February 2008.
I was hired as a product manager and director for hard goods equipment, which included components, water bottles, cages, computers, grips, handlebar tape, tires, etc.
Barley was initially doing a lot of saddle design. I used him a lot in categories for products I was in charge of. He was huge in helping me design the Purist bottle, which I helped formulate. Essentially, he was part of one of the business units I managed. He did do a very small amount of bike design work, but it was in the kids and commuter bike lines. Nothing in the performance line.
BIKERUMOR: Give us some history, what did you do before working for Specialized?
ROBERT: Prior to working for Specialized, both Barley and I worked at Camelbak where we came up with a lot of their patented designs, including the Bite Valve, Big Mouth Reservoir, all the main pack designs and many other parts and pieces. We also launched the Better Bottle and initiated the Podium Bottle just before we left.
Before we started working at Specialized, we had something like 40 patents between us. I started VistaLite and held patents for the world’s first LED blinking safety light. After that, I was a director at Bell Sports and managed the accessory lines, including Blackburn, RhodeGear and VistaLite after they purchased the brand. I also started the Hydrapak line, including coming up with the name.
BIKERUMOR: Anything else worth mentioning?
ROBERT: Innovation is good no matter where it happens. Whether it’s at Specialized or in someone’s garage, it improves the industry for everyone. It helps develop entirely new markets, and that rising tide lifts everyone.