On a mission to cut air pollution in Southeast Asia

On a mission to cut air pollution in Southeast Asia

Motorcycles are the main form of transport for the majority in Southeast Asia. They are also a major source of pollution and carbon emissions. ION Mobility’s goal is to gradually replace them with more eco-friendly electric alternatives.

Nearly a quarter of a billion motorcycles throng the streets of countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Two-wheelers make the world go round in this part of the planet, with motorcycle penetration reaching nearly 90 per cent of households in countries like Thailand and Vietnam. 

Although helpful in navigating gridlocked cities, motorcycles produce considerably more pollution per mile, in the form of particulates and oxides of nitrogen, than even a petrol car. They have negative effects on the planet – and people. Quite aside from their contribution to global warming, tailpipe emissions can have severe health effects on urban populations.  

That’s where ION Mobility, a Singapore-based startup, comes in: its aim is to replace Asia’s polluting hordes of motorcycles with electric-powered alternatives with zero tailpipe emissions. Founded less than four years ago, after rapid recent growth it is currently building a factory in Indonesia to meet demand for 30,000 electric motorcycles, and their accompanying battery packs, per year. 

James Chan is ION Mobility’s founder and CEO. He graduated from university with an engineering degree, then moved into developing industries as a civil servant for the Singapore government. He later shifted into the world of technology as a venture capitalist and angel investor. Along the way he funded and operated firms across a number of sectors, including fintech, but decided time was ripe for a change. “I felt it was time to figure out what that grander purpose was,” he says. “Not to chase the money, but to chase the purpose.” 

James Chan, founder of Singapore-based ION Mobility, which produces electric motorcycles.

While travelling between Vietnam and Indonesia for work, Chan saw the sheer number of motorcycles clogging up the roads there. He also foresaw government appetite to change policies in countries across the region towards climate change and pollution reduction. Until then, much of his career had been focused on software, but he decided to shift gears to hardware. Chan founded ION Mobility in late 2019 with the goal of building and manufacturing electric motorcycles for Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia, as well as chargers and energy storage solutions for an all-of-ecosystem approach. 

“The odds were stacked against us on all fronts,” Chan explains. Not only did he launch the business in earnest just as the Covid-19 pandemic racked the region and the wider world, but building hardware in Singapore, where Chan assembled his initial team, was an uphill task. The collective knowledge of how to build vehicles that’s inherent in other parts of the world – Detroit, for instance, which is known as Motor City – didn’t exist. Chan initially sought out an original design manufacturer (ODM) relationship with Chinese electric moped manufacturers to ease the burden on ION, but quickly realised that while China builds a lot of these for use in bicycle lanes, it didn’t have a market in road-worthy electric motorcycles. Then Covid-19 hit China. 

In March 2020, with China in lockdown, Chan realised ION would have to build the bikes themselves and posted a job listing seeking an industrial designer for electric motorcycles. A Singaporean designer, based at the time in Tokyo and working for a large motorcycle multinational, returned to his home country to lead the industrial and product design team for the company. In-house development started in July 2020, with zero travel and key hires in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, India and China. Today, ION employees represent 13 nationalities across four offices in five countries.

Chan has also designed ION Mobility to be a bottom-up firm, making everything from industrial product design to mechanical and electrical systems within the company. “The hardware, firmware and the software – you name it, we do it; we even designed and built our own battery pack line,” he continues. And it was all done without Chan visiting his overseas offices, which he did for the first time in early 2023.

A battery pack designed and produced especially for ION's recently launched electric motorcycle.

The remote, scattered workforce has caused challenges; building a motorcycle is challenging when employees working on it are in different countries. “I can’t be shipping a bike to every remote engineer,” he continues. Instead, the company relies on strong communication, based in theory, tools and practice, to create an effective design for the ION motorcycles.   

The choice of Singapore as the company’s headquarters has also baffled investors. In Singapore, motorcycles are seen as dangerous. Still, the company has raised funding and has just signed a contract to take a 46,500 sq ft factory in Jakarta, Indonesia, and is in the midst of commissioning its production facility to produce up to 30,000 battery packs and motorcycles each year. That will enable the company to fulfil growing pre-orders for its 12.5kW motor, 4.4kWh battery-powered motorcycle that launched last November. 

Electric vehicles, including motorbikes, are not a one-stop panacea for sustainability. Battery packs need to be made and disposed of; and electricity needs to be generated. Most of the electricity in the region is not currently produced from renewable sources. And producing anything, from battery packs to tyres, for a new vehicle, as well as shipping and selling it, has its own carbon footprint. Still, there is no doubting the health benefits of not having a highly polluting cocktail of gases and particulates entering the bloodstreams of hundreds of millions of people via tailpipe emissions. 

As those pre-orders continue rolling in from across Indonesia, Chan won’t be one of those riding his own bike – at least not yet. He still doesn’t have his motorcycle licence (he tried obtaining it before Covid, but the pandemic put a stop to his lessons). His hope is that the other 200 million or more people currently commuting around Southeast Asia on motorcycles will. 

James Chan

ION Mobility's founder and CEO

Graduates from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a double major degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Engineering and Public Policy 


Graduates from Stanford University in California with a masters in Management Science and Engineering, and begins work as a public servant at Infocomm Media Development Authority in Singapore 


Co-founds Neoteny Labs as an early-stage venture capitalist


Switches hats to become an angel investor, venture builder and serial entrepreneur at Silicon Straits, GreyOrange and Wecash Southeast Asia 


Founds ION Mobility just before the Covid-19 pandemic hits


Launches its latest electric motorcycle in Indonesia 

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