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Taking the world by STORM - Maartje Verhoek

Challenge: Build an electric touring motorcycle and travel around the globe in 80 days, to show the world that the future of mobility is electric. Budget: Negligible. Sounds a tough call? Well, Maartje Verhoek and a team of students from the Technical University of Eindhoven (TU/e) just made it happen with the STORM project.

The STORM motorbike made a triumphant return to Eindhoven on November 2nd, having set off 80 days before on an extraordinary adventure, fueled by belief, enthusiasm and state-of-the-art battery cells. Verhoek was a core member of the team and worked on many aspects of the project, from co-ordination and finance, to sponsorship and PR.

She was asked to join STORM in 2014, after proving her knack for organisation setting up a trip to the USA for fellow honors students. Busy with two degree studies, her initial reaction was to turn it down, but she soon realised that this was no ordinary opportunity. Verhoek says “I knew this was something I’d be really proud of for the rest of my life – I’d never get this chance again”. So she made the decision to commit to the project full-time, figuring: “If I was going to get involved, then I wanted to be totally involved.”

She put her degree on hold, took out a loan to support herself, and joined the 23-strong student team. “We weren’t motivated by money,” Verhoek explains, “and we didn’t earn any academic points. We were there because we wanted to learn or because we wanted to make it happen - and I think that’s one of the biggest reasons that this project worked.”

The STORM project was an enormous technical and logistical challenge, from the development of the bike and batteries, to the intricate planning of the route and events along the way. Getting funding was another of the main preoccupations. Verhoek applied for regional grants and helped bring more than 150 commercial business and industry partners to STORM, many of whom were won over by the team’s enthusiasm and passion. She found it was a huge benefit being based in top technology region Brainport, with tech expertise on the doorstep and an established climate of collaboration between industry and University. “It was easier to get companies on board because they were close by, interested and enthusiastic to help,” she comments. “The TU/e has a really good reputation, so they were willing to take a chance on us.”

In August 2016, after two years of hard work, the STORM team was ready to embark on their round-the-world challenge. However, after a high-profile send off from Eindhoven, elation soon turned to dismay when the bike broke down shortly afterwards in Germany. This was an enormous setback, as they only had one reserve bike that had never been tested. Verhoek laughs: “that bike turned out to be the hero. When we left, it had only driven around the car park, and in the end it drove 23,000km!”

It was an extraordinary trip, crossing Europe, through Turkey, across northern Iran and Central Asia into China. They managed to keep to schedule, with an event every day at universities or City Halls, designed to tell the STORM story and spread the message about e-mobility. “We were never quite sure what shape they would take”, Verhoek recalls, “we had a motorcycle and a presentation, and every day you just had to be really flexible because anything could happen”. They travelled on a shoestring, sleeping on camp-beds and cooking for themselves. Each night they would plug the motorbike’s batteries into the local electricity grid, ready for the next day’s travel.

The team experienced testing times and hospitality in equal measure. In China, they were treated like rockstars, posing for selfies and signing autographs for the locals. But Verhoek became ill and hit a low point, struggling through long nights phoning ahead to check planning in the USA. Luckily, highs were to follow once the team arrived Stateside, not least being challenged to a drag race against a helicopter in L.A. Finally, ecstatic to reach New York, Verhoek managed to get STORM onto a giant electronic billboard in Times Square. The icing on the cake for her was riding through the city on the back of the STORM bike to meet the Dutch Ambassador at the United Nations.

From there, the team flew into Paris and after 80 exhausting, exhilarating days, and 23,000km, they rode back to Eindhoven, flanked by Teslas, to be welcomed back by Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte.

Back to reality, the team is now tying up the loose ends, and Verhoek is contemplating the future: “My whole life has been STORM”, she says, “and we’ve come back to a bit of a black hole”. She plans to graduate in the summer and hopes to be able to build a career around managing the same kind of altruistic projects; co-ordinating diverse strands, making connections, and weaving them towards a successful goal. “But it must be something that I believe in”, she says emphatically, “because if it benefits society, then I’m even more motivated.”

When Verhoek reflects on what she’s got from being part of the STORM project, she struggles to find words to encompass her experience. She says: “I’ve realised that it’s the people you work with that make it a success. If there’s doubt in the team or the goal gets lost, then you won’t succeed.” Looking back on the trip, what does Verhoek see as its legacy? “We did what we set out to do – we’ve raised awareness about electric mobility and drawn funds to it.” She thinks for a moment and adds: “But for me, it was also about inspiring a future generation that you can do something others might say is crazy. Of course, you need a little luck, and people have to like you, but you can make really awesome things happen!”