For a brief moment, Rich Kronfeld was in that rarefied galaxy of St. Louis Park baby boomers who made it big. The Coen brothers, Tom Friedman, Al Franken — Kronfeld was taking his place alongside them.
In the late ’90s, Kronfeld created a goofy game show called “Let’s Bowl.” It ran for several years on local TV, and then the big time called: Comedy Central picked up “Let’s Bowl” in 2001.
Kronfeld and his socially challenged alter ego “Wally Hotvedt” went national. The show ran for two years, gained a cult following — then was dropped.
“I had worked many years to get to that point,” said Kronfeld, now 50. “Then we got canceled, and it was, ‘Now what?’ I hadn’t prepared for that.”
Kronfeld worked a variety of jobs over the next few years, most of them with a public-service focus. He worked with Habitat for Humanity and with a disaster-relief group, Nechama. It was while riding his bike to work one day that he got the idea that would set him on a path he never dreamed of: alternative-energy entrepreneur.
“I’m a nerd in many ways, including a recumbent-bike nerd,” he said. “I was commuting an hour and a half to Eden Prairie on my bike. I was looking for something you could buy that would have an electric assist.
“Then I had my ‘aha’ moment: Why couldn’t the bike pedals be connected to a generator?”
Kronfeld took his inspiration from the velomobile, a streamlined, bicycle-based vehicle that’s popular in Europe. But he knew Americans would need something bigger and more powerful.
His creation is called the Raht Racer, which stands for Recumbent Automotive Human Transport. The streamlined three-wheeler with a carbon-fiber body runs off an electric motor that’s charged by pedaling. The vehicle will be capable of speeds above 60 mph, and Kronfeld believes he can sell it for less than $15,000.
Kronfeld is billing it as the world’s fastest bicycle, but it also will operate on a battery charge without being pedaled. Why not just simply make a straightforward electric car?
“There have been a lot of electric vehicle companies that have crashed,” Kronfeld said. “I used to think the ‘why’ of this was that it’s electric. Now I think the ‘why’ is the pedals. It’s a bike that can go 90 mph! That’s insane!”
Kronfeld’s project recently got a big boost when Xcel Energy and the University of Minnesota-Mankato awarded him a $50,000 renewable-energy grant.
It’s a strange turn of events for Kronfeld, who jokingly calls himself “a washed-up comedian.” (Not totally washed up, though; he’s currently appearing as a regular cast member in a local children’s TV program, “The Choo Choo Bob Show.”) But he said his experience as an entertainer actually prepared him for the business world.
“That whole Hollywood entertainment world is actually the harshest, purest form of entrepreneurship,” he said. “The product you’re selling is you, and you’re constantly pitching yourself. That’s actually been very good preparation for what I’m doing now.
“And I have to say, of all the creative things I’ve ever done, this has been as exciting as any of them. I’m really looking forward to seeing where things go.”