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Segway: New owner, new course -- new fate?

Segways poised for a comeback? 01:31

Segway, which often makes lists of the biggest product flops in recent history, is betting that better times lie ahead. That is, now that China's Ninebot Limited is acquiring the personal transporter maker for an undisclosed price.

According to Segway President Rod Keller, the company plans to invest in new products for new applications and markets in order to expand the Segway and Ninebot brands around the world. Ninebot also makes two-wheeled electronic vehicles, and Segway had recently accused it of patent infringement.

"Segway's strategic combination with Ninebot will almost instantly give us consumer price points we've never had before," Keller wrote in an email to CBSMoneyWatch. "For over a decade Segway's primary markets have been commercial markets -- tour operators, law enforcement and private security. Ninebot Personal Transporters will provide us access to more consumers than ever before."

Fans of the motorized scooter have always had grand ambitions. Inventor Dean Kamen tinkered with the Segway for a decade before its December 2001 public unveiling. According to Kamen, the Segway would miraculously solve the seemingly intractable problems of air pollution and urban congestion.

He was so sure of Seaway's success that he leased a 77,000-square-foot factory near his home in Manchester, New Hampshire, and likened his invention's impact on automobiles to the auto's impact on the horse-and-buggy in the early 20th century.

"Executives at companies like FedEx (FDX) and (AMZN) would behold his high tech superscooter and wonder how they'd managed all these years without it," according to a December 2003 Wired story. "The U.S. Postal Service and police departments across the nation would overwhelm the company with orders. And behind Segway's institutional customers, Kamen envisioned a long line of consumers from around the globe, checkbooks in hand. Maybe not all 6 billion of us would clamor at once to own one, but to him that seemed only a matter of time. "

Venture Capitalist John Doerr, who made hugely profitable bets on Amazon, was a Segway fan and predicted the company would reach $1 billion in sales faster than any company in history. In 2013 speech at a conference sponsored by Pando Daily, Doerr explained that he made that claim after Segway received a request for proposals to equip 20 percent of the nation's letter carriers with Segways, a multibillion dollar opportunity.

"The Postal union really didn't like the idea of more productive postal workers because people would lose jobs," he said, adding that he wished he had kept his mouth shut because Segway never got the order.

The Segway struggled to gain traction after its much-hyped debut. For one thing, it reached speeds of 13 miles per hour, making it too slow to ride on roads and too fast to be operated on sidewalks. Its $4,950 sticker price scared consumers away along with concerns about their safety amid reports of injuries. President George W. Bush fell off a Segway in 2003, when the company was forced to recall all of the scooters to fix a software glitch that caused them to unexpectedly change direction.

Segway, though, has hung in there. Many U.S. cities feature Segway tours. Security companies also use them for patrol work in areas like malls, made famous by the main character in the "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" movies. The company declined to release details regarding its sales because it's closely held. A spokeswoman told CBS MoneyWatch it has about 90 employees.

Segway has changed hands several times in recent years. Kamen sold it to U.K. businessman Jimi Heseldon in 2009 after raising about $176 million from investors. Kamen didn't respond to a message seeking comment for this story.

Tragedy struck Segway the next year after Heseldon was killed after he lost control of one of the scooters and fell off a cliff while walking his dog. Experts didn't find any mechanical defects with his Segway. Two years later, Summit Strategic Investments acquired the company and subsequently sold it to Ninebot.

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