Product designer scoots to success


Ulrich takes a Xootr ride. That's his Narbeth home — a former church — at right.

Photo by Candace diCarlo


Wharton’s Karl Ulrich is a respected scholar in the field of product development and design — in fact, he wrote a book on the subject. He’s 39 years old.

And he tools around Narberth on a scooter.

Don’t laugh. This is no kid’s toy. What he tools around on is serious transportation for adults.
It’s called the Xootr, and he designed it.

“I’ve been a human-powered-vehicle and alternative-transportation nut for my entire life,” the
associate professor of operations and information management said. “I worked on scooter-like and bicycle-like vehicles in my spare time as a student.”

He maintained that passion even after leaving college, “noodling with some designs.”

And then, last year, opportunity presented itself.

“I had just gotten tenure in January 1999, and I was thinking of taking a year off to develop new ventures,” he said. (Yes, he not only teaches product development, he engages in it.)

And the idea for the Xootr, which he had been toying around with for a decade, came back to him. “I was looking for something that was hand-crafted and could be sold directly on the Web. It was just a coincidence that scooters became hot” around that time.

What distinguishes the Xootr from the scooters of old is the same thing that made the Rollerblade not just another roller skate — advanced technology.

“In the ’80s, companies like DuPont developed high-performance polyurethanes for the in-line skate market” that have less rolling resistance, he said.

“What we did was put those high-performance polyurethanes on large-diameter wheels. … So when you kick a Xootr, it really goes.”

Those bigger wheels also make for a safer scooter than the Razors, which have small in-line skate wheels. “That little wheel gets stuck on almost everything,” he said. “We had a Razor for comparative purposes, and one day, when we were going to get ice cream, I made my son ride the Razor and he did a major face plant on the sidewalk.”

But scooters on the whole are not as dangerous as news reports would have you believe. “When you do the numbers, scooting is almost as dangerous as walking,” he said.

Like its smaller counterpart, though, the Xootr folds into a compact package that is lightweight and easy to carry.

To develop the Xootr, Ulrich also drew on the knowledge of his brother Nathan (EAS’87,GEng’89,Gr’90) and several West Coast designers he had gotten to know over the years.

As befits a serious scooter, the Xootr has a serious price tag. It starts at $269, and the top-of-the-line model runs a cool $489. But that hasn’t stopped nearly 50,000 Xootrs from flying out the door since its introduction last year.

In fact, Ulrich said, the popularity of the cheaper Razor has proven good for business. “The people who [buy a Razor for themselves] usually get dissatisfied and want something better,” he said.

Ulrich doesn’t commute to work on a Xootr, though – the seven-mile trek from Narberth is beyond the practical range for a scooter, so he rides a bike instead. But the Xootr is ideal for people whose commutes are two miles or less, he said.

As for those in between, “My mission is to own zero to five miles, and if you’re going to go up to five miles, you’re going to do it on some kind of Xootr product.” The next step towards that goal is the introduction of a motorized Xootr later this year.

The Xootr is available on the company Web site,, and at Sharper Image stores, Cool Runnings in Bryn Mawr and Mainly Bikes in Narberth.

Originally published on September 28, 2000