There is an intoxicating feel about the Hyperloop. A project of high speed public transportation powered by linear induction motors and air compressors meant to travel at an average speed of 600mph (970 km/h), it was brought back to public interest with modifications in 2013 by Elon Musk, who trademarked it through his space transport company Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX).
The interesting part is that Hyperloop is an open sourced project and anyone can potentially make it happen. There have been several propositions by students and three main companies have started up to adjust and implement Musk’s idea. These are Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Hyperloop One, and TransPod. The former two are US-based, while the latter is Canadian.
Bibop Gabriele Gresta, Chairman and COO at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), started the company with Dirk Ahlborn about a year ago. The Italian entrepreneur is running the Hyperloop race because it is exciting and fun. He has a background in multiple fields, including software development, digital media, finance, and humanitarian work.
He began his career at 15, responsible for a computer programming at the super-learning company Alpha Centre. Later, he did so many different things, his career seems to be a bet on how many experiences one can have in a lifetime. He has been a dancer, TV and radio presenter, manager and investor in themes parks and speaker. At 28, he sold 40 per cent of his Bibop production company to Telecom Italia earning 11 billion lira. In 2003, he started the incubator Digital Magics and ventured into investments across Europe, counting three IPOs so far.
His journey into the Hyperloop venture started because he was getting bored in Europe. “I felt I wasn’t learning anything any longer,” he shares, “I wanted to move to the US because if I hadn’t done it then, I would have never done it later. So I went to the Valley.”
To his surprise, however, San Francisco was boring too. “They don’t have fun! You go out with a girl and she starts pitching a Facebook for cats and dogs at you!” he exclaims. “That’s when I decided to relocate to Los Angeles, and that was a great idea! Besides the plastic Hollywood world, there is a very interesting scene of entrepreneurs and engineers.”
He started attending weekly tech meetups and that’s where “I met that mad man of a business partner, Dirk Ahlborn” he says. At first, a collaboration between the two did not seem plausible. “Dirk approaches me and tells me - in fluent Italian - that he’s been working on Hyperloop with a team of 100 scientists. I was really sceptical...Elon Musk’s white paper had been released only months earlier,” shares Bibop. “When I asked him how much money he had raised, he told me none, because he didn’t need it. You can imagine I had my doubts.”
Dirk explained to him that all he had done was to crowd source the Hyperloop project and, in a very short span of time, scientists from different geographies and companies, including NASA and Livermore Labs, joined in. Bibop comments, “When Dirk told me this, I couldn’t help shouting ‘You want to build the world’s most evolved transportation project with crowd-sourcing?’ I just could not believe it.”
After that conversation, Bibop went home with a document about the project Dirk had sent him. It stayed on his laptop desktop for a while, “It was watching me and I was watching it,” he recalls, “And only after a few weeks did I resolve to open it. It was Musk’s paper with a lot of attached notes about the feasibility of the project. Each of them was written by a scientist - some were even scanned versions of handwritten posts!- who reported also their name, job title, their company, and contact details,” Bibop recalls.
Dirk named this large participation of scientists ‘crowd storming’. Bibop grew more curious and fascinated. He says that, “For a month, I was in a bubble. Totally focussed on studying this document and doing a lot of due diligence to find out if it was a scam.” It turned out that it was not a joke, but a very real participatory project. He continues, “I called every single person who had written notes on that document and to my surprise most of them told me they were really excited to be part of this, and that money was not their priority.” Shortly afterwards, Bibop called Dirk and informed him that he was excited to get on board.
Dirk used to work for Girvan Institute, a non-profit incubator for tech companies which started to help NASA commercialise its technologies. He also founded Jump Starter Inc, a platform to help early stage companies grow through crowdfunding and crowdsourcing. Through this, the duo did a call to action to invite more experts to join Hyperloop. This allowed them to expand their pool of collaborators worldwide and to diversify the competencies. Bibop says that currently they have 540 scientists working with them from 42 countries who get stock options instead of receiving a salary.
This is how HTT started in November 2013. They have built their technology around a project formerly used to stabilise bullets into cannons, patented in the Livermore Labs years before. Through their crowdsourced team they got in touch with the author of the patent, declassified it and used it for their transportation purposes.
Earlier this year, they announced that they obtained construction permits to build a five mile test track in Quay Valley, California in collaboration with Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum and AECOM. It should be ready by 2019 and the predicted cost is $150 million. Other tracks are planned by SpaceX (1.6 km tracks which Space X is building and the one Hyperloop One is planning in Nevada.)
Now, here the story becomes even more intricate. Firstly, Hyperloop is in itself a challenge because it is open to anybody. More precisely, it is open to anybody who has the skills, the energy and the resources necessary to develop solutions. So not exactly to anybody, but to a large enough number of people to generate tough competition.
Hyperloop One, one of HTT’s main competitor groups, is led by, among others, individuals with strong connections to Musk. One is Shervin Pishevar, an early major investor in Uber; David Sacks, currently on the board of directors at PayPal; and finally, Brogan BamBrogan, the Hyperloop One CEO, who is one of SpaceX’s main engineers. Hyperloop One has raised $ 80 million in series B funding from the French company SNCF and has tested their prototype in Nevada, but on rails.
Bibop is more concerned about them than the Canadian company Trans Pod because the competition with Hyperloop One has been harsher, especially on questions regarding trademarks and media attention. According to Bibop, the main problem is the clash of visions between the two companies. He says that HTT does not want only to implement a futuristic and efficient public service, but also to establish a model of running a business no longer based on the enrichment of a few. “Hyperloop is a very powerful technology and you can make a lot of money out of it. This wealth should be distributed as much as possible. We believe in a capitalism based on abundance rather than on consumption” says Bibop, and shares that HTT is working with Fullerton Universtity on business models that would allow Hyperloop to be free of cost for passengers.
Another big challenge is, no surprise, the budget. The main criticism Musk received when he first released his white paper was regarding his too optimistic calculation of costs ($6 billion for the passenger-only version, coverable in 20 years with $20 journey tickets). Bibop and some other contributors who work at the project have been able to finance HTT out of their own pocket and Bibop says this model will be able to sustain future costs too. Although HTT have done their math, it is very hard to predict all the risks - not only engineering related - a technology never tested before can imply.
Bibop concludes showing his digital record of sleep hours in the last 12 months. “I normally need to sleep seven hours per night, I sleep less than five on average now,” he says. It is not necessary to be a physician to notice that his level of adrenaline is reaching rare peaks. To run the Hyperloop race, one needs to be fast, and there are many things that can go wrong, especially if you are going up against giant competitors. But it seems that fun for Bibop and HTT is precisely a synonym of high adrenaline.