TeenÂ’s unicycle a sensation

MILTON, ONTARIO - A Milton teenager is garnering international attention for his cool-looking invention, an electric unicycle called Uno that started as a science fair project.

The environmentally friendly Uno was featured on this month's cover of Popular Science magazine as one of the top 10 inventions of the year.

Nineteen-year-old inventor Ben Gulak has spent the past year trying to turn the Uno from prototype to something that people can buy.

He has also been fielding calls from the media. On a freshman preview tour of MIT three weeks ago, The Tonight Show rang him up on his cellphone.

Smaller than a motorcycle, the Uno uses two wheels side by side to provide stability while the rider shifts weight to accelerate, stop and turn.

The inspiration for the road bike came during a family trip to China, where Gulak was struck by the pollution and overcrowding.

Gulak called his invention the Uno "because it has a European flavour and it does mean `the one.' When you look at it from the side, it does look like there's only one wheel. And it could be a solution to global warming, if you want to stretch it that far."

Gulak took his bike to the National Motorcycle Show in Toronto in March, where it caused a stir and caught writer Glenn Roberts' eye. Roberts got his teenage daughter to ride it and then he wrote about the Uno for his Barrie-based magazine, Motorcycle Mojo.

When the May/June issue came out, there were 10 million hits on Mojo's website, causing its system to crash.

News agencies from around the world called Gulak for interviews and he came to the attention of The Tonight Show whose star, Jay Leno, is a famed motorcycle fan.

Michele Sacchetti, who teaches design and technology at Hamilton's Hillfield Strathallan College, was astounded at Gulak's work ethic during the three years he taught the private school student.

"He knew what he wanted and he put all his efforts and all his will into that," says Sacchetti, who gave Gulak 99 per cent in Grade 11.

It wasn't unusual, during the annual science fair competitions, for the student "to spend a lot of late nights, or not sleep at all, to get his robotics ready," Sacchetti adds.

As for the Uno, "I think it is a wonderful product. That's what is so great about Ben... he has taken that extra step."

While the bike didn't win top prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in New Mexico last year, it was judged to have the "most marketability" and Gulak has run with that ever since.

He put off going to university for one year while he threw everything he had – and about $50,000 of his parents' money – into reworking the bike, getting all the bugs out and ensuring it had a look that would attract potential riders.

"We are such a visual society; people aren't going to want to do it unless it looks cool," says Gulak, adding he's hoping it will sell for an affordable $6,000.

He doesn't think consumers doing good things for the environment should be penalized with high prices.

The only child of Ken and Sylvie Gulak (his father is in the food business, his mother a psychotherapist) has just returned from a business trip to California seeking investors.

Mike Haney, executive editor of Popular Science magazine, says, "It's cool. Ben's bike, from a technical perspective, is not necessarily doing something no one's done before.

"Accelerating by leaning was done by the Segway (electric scooter), but the side-by-side wheels are unique.

"My sense is that he's been able to grasp something that looks good, that helps get attention."


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