On Route To The Future: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Co-Founder and CEO Dirk Ahlborn
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For a concept that has managed to capture the imagination of the general populace as much as hyperloop has, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are multiple companies that are working on making it a reality today. But what stands out about Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) in its attempt to develop this proposed mode of transportation is the collaborative nature of its efforts in this endeavor- the startup proudly declares that it has a team of more than 800 people around the world, who, alongside 40 leading industry players, are working on building this fantastical concept. Passion is almost certainly the major driving force at this enterprise, with HTT utilizing a crowd collaborative approach to build up the company, which means that most of its team contribute their talent and expertise in exchange for stock options.
During my conversation with HTT co-founder and CEO Dirk Ahlborn, which was on the sidelines of the Oslo Innovation Summit in late September, he kept referring to the work he and his team were doing as “a global movement,” with his company having so far mobilized more than 50 teams in 38 countries around the world. “The bigger the movement is, the more invincible it becomes,” Ahlborn explains. “Our model, by using people, collaborating with industry partners, in making everybody part of the company by giving them stock options, working with our community in an open way, and letting people bring us the best ideas, the best technologies, the best contacts, really allowed us to accelerate, and be faster –and better- in development.”
For the uninitiated, the hyperloop mode of transportation would see passengers or cargo in pods or capsules levitated magnetically through reduced pressure tubes, with the low-friction environment allowing for travel speeds as high as 760mph. The current interest in this proposed technology began in 2013 after Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk published a research paper that outlined the hyperloop concept, and then invited other companies to develop it into an actual means of transport for our time. At the time, Ahlborn put the idea up on JumpStarter, a crowdsourcing incubator he had co-founded, and asked the community he had on the platform if they should work on making hyperloop a reality.
Ahlborn remembers being blown away by the response: “Not only did they say we should be doing it, but they also said, hey, we want to be a part of it.” This led to the incorporation of HTT, with Ahlborn then calling for people to invest their expertise and hours in the company, in exchange for stock options. Ahlborn and co-founder Bibop Gresta (who now functions as the Chairman of HTT) thus started getting together a team of people with highly diverse and specialized backgrounds, all of whom got to work on determining the build of the hyperloop. And as they studied its feasibility, the HTT team soon realized that the technology needed to execute their vision already existed- it was thus just a matter of getting the right partners on board to actually build it.
Indeed, when HTT announced in December 2016 that it had raised a total of over US$108 million for itself, breaking the figure down revealed that the company had raised only $31.8 million in cash from investors- the remainder $77 million referred to man hours, services rendered, land rights usage, and future in-kind investments. That figure may pale in comparison to the total funding its main competitor in the hyperloop space, Hyperloop One, has raised (a total of $245 million so far), but Ahlborn doesn’t seem to be too perturbed by that fact. “I actually believe that we can do much more without money,” he says. “I think, sometimes, we work better when we don’t have money.”
At the same time, Ahlborn believes that having more than one company working on the hyperloop is actually good for the business at large. “Today, you hear about hyperloop everywhere,” he notes. “And that’s great, because, at the end, you, as a normal person, you don’t care [about the name of the company]. You don’t even know the difference. But at least you hear it’s moving forward- and it’s the same for politicians, it’s the same for investors, and so forth.” Everybody helps each other at the end.” Ahlborn then goes on to dismiss the idea of any apparent bad blood between the competitors. “We wish everybody to be successful,” he declares. “I think the worst thing that can happen to them is that we fail, and the worst thing that can happen to us is that they fail.”
Investments aside, Ahlborn notes that the main challenge that actually lies before HTT (or any of the other companies in this space, really) in making the hyperloop a reality, is something quite different. “The hurdles are [often] governments,” Ahlborn admits. “So, finding a government that’s visionary enough to taking this on, to understand this concept, to understand that innovation is a good thing, and to be able to push the regulatory framework, that’s crucial.” This is why HTT has been in talks with governments around the world to figure out feasibility studies for the hyperloop, and thereby ensure its practicality as a mode of transportation. “The most important part is working with the governments,” he says. “We’re working now with, I think, seven or eight governments around the world, and that’s really the main key. You need to be able to convince these governments to create these new regulations. Technology you can buy, right- but if these regulations are not there, you can’t do anything.”
According to Ahlborn, this approach HTT has chosen to work with governments, is also how it is differentiating itself in this space. “We have a more holistic approach,” he notes. “So, for us, it’s not only about capsules moving inside a tube, but it’s about building the transportation systems the way you would do in 2017.” Ahlborn notes that public transportation systems today, regardless of where they may be located, are mostly losing more money than what they are making, and that’s why HTT is trying to reimagine this whole business around mobility with the hyperloop.
According to Ahlborn, ticketing doesn’t have to be the only option to make revenue- there’s advertising to be considered, of course, plus a passenger’s time and experience in the capsule or pod can be monetized. “When you really think about how you move people, and you look into that business model, and you find out that everything you see around you does not make economic sense,” he explains. “Because they’re all losing money. So that’s exactly where we come in- we’re looking into creating a better passenger experience. So, [it’s] not [about] bringing people closer together, being cramped, but having a better experience by finding out alternate revenue streams. And you do that normally through enabling an ecosystem. You’re building basically a completely new economy, just like people have done with the App Store on the iPhone. You can do the same thing in mobility, and that’s our approach.”
The United Arab Emirates is one of the countries where Ahlborn and his team have been in talks with, with the Abu Dhabi Department of Municipal Affairs and Transport signing an agreement with HTT in November 2016 to conduct a feasibility study that’d see Abu Dhabi and Al Ain connected via a hyperloop track. In January this year, the Office of H.H. Sheikh Falah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan also announced the signing of a strategic partnership agreement with HTT, which was in line with Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2021 that sees the Emirate take “a leading role in the launch and adoption of initiatives and projects that are sustainable and based on the latest technologies and innovations.”
From Ahlborn’s perspective, the UAE has been a country that has seemed more interested than others in helping HTT achieve its goals- he declares the government to be one of the few that seem to be really eager (and able) to push ahead with the realization of the hyperloop. As for why: “Because they’re visionaries,” Ahlborn states, quite simply. “I think the UAE is an interesting market,” he adds. “The government is pushing a lot towards innovation, so they are very open. It is, of course, a new ecosystem, so it’s a little bit challenging. But it’s definitely one of the places where big ideas can be born, and I’m a big fan of entrepreneurs that go after solving big problems in the world, rather than going after trying to just build the next Instagram or something.”
At the end of the day, for all of the talk regarding hyperloop, people today seem to be more eager to find out when they can expect to see this concept become a reality. “We just put the first passenger Hyperloop capsule into production,” Ahlborn reveals. “This is like an airplane; it’s a complete fuselage. It takes over a year to manufacture. It’s done in a way that the cabin is pressure proof, that you can be inside, all the components will be together. So, I would say we are much ahead of our competition- all of them.” As for exactly when (and where) the hyperloop would be first launched, Ahlborn is keeping his cards close to his chest, though he does say that if it were to happen in Abu Dhabi, the goal would be to have it in 2021. “We hope to be able to announce the first commercial line over the next six months,” he adds. “And I can’t talk about where, but let’s say that we hope the Emirates is part of it.”
Dirk Ahlborn, co-founder and CEO, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies
“The biggest challenge is that when you’re doing any kind of [entrepreneurial] vision, you do whatever it takes, and people say that’s a sacrifice- but in reality, that’s not the problem. Because I don’t sacrifice- I do what I really like to do. The big burden that you carry is that you are making other people sacrifice... So, my kids, for example, they sacrifice, and they don’t have a choice- they don’t care if I’m building the hyperloop, or if I do anything else, they just want me to be home. They just want me to be with them. And I’m not giving them a choice. You know, for me, I could say, tomorrow, I’m going to go home, I’m going to stay with my kids. So, I’m doing something based on my free will. But the time you take away from the people that you love, that you care about, things that you don’t -you can’t- get back, that’s really the big burden. And, of course, like every entrepreneur, you have great days, and you have days where you’re very, very low, and you just think, nothing’s working. It’s just normal; it’s really hard on the psychology.”
When the going gets tough, what keeps you moving?
“In a way, what we’re doing is already walking by itself, right? So, it’s not me. I’m not the company, and it’s not Bibop [Gresta], my business partner. You know, it’s never the person- it’s the team that we have created. It’s everybody; everybody’s pushing, everybody’s moving forward. If I look in to our inner social network, for example, right now, I see so many people doing something, moving it forward... By using our model, it’s literally unstoppable, because it’s so much passion-driven. And even if you have a very low, low day, you’re still getting pushed forward. I mean, I hope that I’m bringing something to the venture by guiding its strategy, and making sure we are going in the right direction, but at the end, really, it’s more that I’m guided by what we’re doing.”
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
“The advice that I can give [entrepreneurs] is probably to ask [other people for their feedback]. Ask for help. There’s a lot of people who don’t do that. If you talk to someone, and you explain your company or your idea, and they say ‘Wow, that’s awesome,’ your next thing should be asking him to join you, and you would be surprised at how many people would join you, or how many people would actually help you. You don’t necessarily need money. It’s not about that. If you have a good vision, if you have a great idea, people will love to be part of it. And if they don’t say wow, then maybe it’s time to look for a new idea.”