The answer for Ahlborn has been to tap into a network of people from around the globe – that is, the “crowd” – who were willing to give up their skills, expertise and spare time to help bring the Hyperloop idea to life.
While still untested, Hyperloop TT says it will have a five-kilometre commercial prototype in Abu Dhabi open to passengers within two to three years. A Hyperloop is a system of almost airless tubes that – theoretically – will propel carriages of passengers or freight at speeds of up to 1300km/h, potentially connecting Sydney and Melbourne in about an hour.
The train-in-a-vacuum-tube concept has been around for over a century but was thrust into the public’s imagination in 2013 when entrepreneur Elon Musk released a white paper titled Hyperloop Alpha, developed by engineers from his Tesla and Space X companies.
A year earlier Ahlborn had founded an online start-up incubator called Jumpstarter that built platforms for crowd collaboration and crowdfunding.
“When Elon said he was too busy to work on it and wanted someone else to pick it up I thought it was a perfect fit in order to try out our model,” Ahlborn explains.
There was an overwhelming response from engineers and designers around the globe who wanted to commit their free time to working on the project, leading to Hyperlopp TT’s foundation in 2013.
Today the company has a team of 800 people working on the project for at least 10 hours a week in exchange for stock options, along with 160 full-time employees. Around 50 companies and universities have also come on board to provide expertise, technology and resources.
The company has only had to raise $US52 million ($67 million) in cash funding plus $US80 million ($104 million) in in-kind investment. Meanwhile its major competitor, the Richard Branson-backed Virgin Hyperloop One, has raised more than $US460 million ($595 million) from venture capital backers and major investors including port owner DP World.
Ahlborn says the free engineering and design work from its “crowd” backers enabled Hyperlooper TT to get off the ground and also ensured it survived the COVID-19 pandemic when other start-ups were laying off staff or folding.
“We’re used to working in a decentralised team,” he says. “We don’t have a huge cash burn, so all of our funds go into actually building something.”
The pandemic nonetheless slowed Hyperloop TT’s testing and integration work at its centre at Toulouse, France, where has built a fully operational 320 metre Hyperloop system.
Once tested successfully, the company will start building the five-kilometre track in Abu Dhabi, which Ahlborn says should be taking passengers within two to three years and hopes will be the start of a wider Hyperloop network in the United Arab Emirates.
The Hyperloop’s potential speed gets the most attention. But Ahlborn says it is the fact a Hyperloop should have far lower operational costs than traditional rail is what gives him confidence.
“There’s a big problem in the world and that’s basically there’s no train or subway that makes economic sense – they all rely on subsidies,” he says. “But the Hyperloop actually can make a profit and that’s something that hasn’t been done so far.”
Pause Fest 2021 will take place from March 1 to March 12 with the event held online due to COVID-19. Other speakers include NASA aerospace engineer Christopher Gerty and European Space Agency data scientist Pierre-Philippe Mathieu.
Business reporter at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.