Dynamic and forward-looking twin brothers, Torsten and Bjorn Robbens, acquired one of the oldest Belgian motorcycle brands in the world, Saroléa. Discover their views on sustainable mobility, their passion for technology and racing, working with and at Solvay, and their vision for the future ...
Could you tell us more about yourselves and Saroléa today?
Torsten Robbens: I’m the CTO of Saroléa, and I have a background in Formula 1 and at Le Mans. I also have a background in building composite optical instruments for space applications and satellites. In 2010, I acquired the brand rights to Saroléa, a Belgian company that started building motorcycles in 1901 and was one of the world’s five first motorcycle brands. The brand was recognized for its reliability and remarkable manufacturing. However, the factory was shut down due to World War II, and then came the massive arrival of Japanese motorcycles on the European market. Saroléa did continue to supply motorbike parts until the early 70s.
Bjorn Robbens: I’m the CEO of Saroléa, and I have a background in information technology. I worked for a number of companies and finally founded my own in 2010, specialized in CRM software. In 2012, I had the opportunity to sell my company to an international group and join my brother Torsten at Saroléa. I also have a background in Formula 1, but my focus at Saroléa is to make a successful business out of the brand. Initially, the project started with racing motorbikes only, but a couple of years ago, we re-oriented our business to the production of road-legal motorcycles. That is one aspect.
Another aspect is the technology behind our products. There’s battery technology, software and communication efficiency, for example adding 4G capacity to our motorcycles to make them smart. We use machine learning and artificial intelligence in our products to make them more efficient and safe for their use in different markets.
We believe we’re one of the first manufacturers to package batteries in composite cases, so that‘s something where know-how about composites comes in. It helps to have a diverse team like ours, with people who have backgrounds in the aerospace, automotive, IT, security, and safety, and with that knowledge, we are able to produce something that is a gamechanger in mobility.
So, why Saroléa and not another motorcycle brand?
Torsten: Our grand-uncle was a successful factory rider for the brand in the 1950s, so the name has always been in our family. The brand has a strong history, so we started this project - a new company that builds high-performance electric motorcycles.
Has riding always been your passion?
Torsten: Yes, my brother and I have been riding since we were three years old. I’m personally also interested in the technological part. I ride motorcycles regularly, but it’s the technology aspect - digitization, composites and batteries - that gives us a shot at making something unique and which corresponds to the direction the world is going. We are technology-driven and more importantly, environmentally conscious. We hope that our brand can be a part of the solution for mobility of the future.
How many motorbikes do you produce on average monthly/yearly?
Bjorn: We’re in pre-production stage, so we’ve sold 11 bikes, and our aim is to sell and build around 80 bikes in the next 12 months. Then we aim to scale up to 260, then to about 600, and eventually within five years we want to build around 1200 motorcycles a year. So it’s a limited production of a high-end niche product. It’s pretty expensive for a motorcycle, but it uses efficient materials and the best battery technology available. We try to stretch what’s possible, and the price is only secondary for us and for our customers.
How would you describe your collaboration with Solvay?
Torsten: Since we’re a startup and hopefully scaling up within the next year, we try to find partners that can support our growth. We got in contact with Solvay’s Research & Innovation Director and the Director of Facilities and convinced them of the many touchpoints between Saroléa and Solvay in terms of product philosophy and how we see the future of our products. We now have our offices at Solvay’s Brussels campus, which is a pretty unique opportunity for us.
What are those main touchpoints?
Bjorn: It’s the materials and the technology that Solvay provides us with. We want to become leaders in electric motorcycles. It’s also the philosophy of the company. Ernest Solvay founded his company with a philosophy that was similar to what Mr. Saroléa did with his company in 1850, and they’re both family- run Belgian companies. They constantly push the limits of technology and are very innovative. Solvay is a global player, on the forefront of different markets.
Pictured right: Bjorn Robbens (left) at Le Mans
Torsten: Since we have our offices here on the campus, we feel welcomed and respected by the people at Solvay, which is very important. We feel their energy, and it makes us motivated to speak with people from different departments such as energy and communications. They motivate us to work even harder, and I believe that we inspire them in some way too. They see that their work goes into something tangible.
Although Solvay is a multinational company, to us it’s like a family. We reached out to someone from Solvay in South Korea regarding battery technology, and it was a very easy and open exchange. And that is the most surprising element, it makes Solvay very different from other large international companies.
You’re committed to producing clean, innovative and also high-end technology. What is Solvay’s role in helping you achieve that sustainable and high quality product?
Torsten: We haven’t been at Solvay for very long, so we’re still exploring the range of Solvay products available and the different possibilities we have. It’s clear that composites will help us create lighter technology solutions and improve product efficiency. Solvay has developed an autoclave solution for the aerospace industry. So we hope that with these products we can make our vehicles better and consume less energy to help reduce our environmental footprint.
The secondary aspect is the safety, especially from the battery point of view. How can we make electric vehicles safer? With Solvay, we see the different possibilities and synergies.
Pictured: Dean Harrison (Saroléa’s Development Pilot and one of the world’s best road racers)
Bjorn: Finally, we want to build a roadmap where we can recycle 100% - or as much as possible - of our motorcycles, batteries, and battery packs. Here too, it’s very important that we understand how Solvay is handling these challenges. How can we recycle the composite structures? How can we recycle the battery technology so production is efficient? Being associated with a global brand like Solvay, which puts sustainability in the forefront, helps to reinforce our brand as well.
What is your vision? What do you want to achieve over the next 2-3 years?
Bjorn: We now have our offices here on the Solvay campus, but we want to also move our production and assembly facility to this inspiring environment. That’s the next big step we want to take.
Torsten: We also want to expand our sales globally and become the reference brand for high performance, high quality products.
Pictured right: Bjorn and Torsten Robbens
Bjorn: And we want to minimize our environmental footprint, including during production; that’s one of our philosophies. We make our motorcycles as good as possible so that they last longer than any other bike. We will make the battery recyclable. We want to be able to take out the old battery pack, recycle it, and put in a new battery pack, and the bike is good to go for another 5-10 years.
What are the difficulties and challenges Solvay can help you with?
Torsten: We would like to implement more 3D printing technology in our motorbikes. I think this is rather new at Solvay, and it’s something we’re looking forward to. In the field of composites, the products are already really good, so improving on them is difficult; it’s mainly the manufacturing process we can work on improving. This is something we still have more to learn about, and hopefully together with the engineers, we can find the best product for the different applications in our motorbikes. And battery safety is very important, we can’t stress that enough.
Torsten: There is a willingness at Solvay to assist us. It’s an exceptional kind of relationship. It’s the philosophy of Solvay’s founder still being followed today.