Bibop G. Gresta, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies chairman, speaks about how tube-and-capsule-based system might fit in with India's multimodal transportation
When he was first presented with the idea, Bibop G. Gresta wasn’t exactly enamoured of Elon Musk’s futuristic transportation concept called Hyperloop. Today, as co-founder and chairman of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc.—a US-based crowdfunded company that has raised over $100 million till date—Gresta is not only sold on the idea, but is also betting that the future of transport lies in this vision. In an interview, Gresta spoke about what got him started on it, and how the superfast, tube-and-capsule-based system that uses magnetic levitation might also fit in with India’s chaotic, multimodal transportation. Edited excerpts:
How did you get started with Hyperloop?
It was my business partner Dirk Ahlborn, an entrepreneurial genius, who took the idea from Elon Musk’s white paper on the concept. He decided to create a new company using a completely new approach—crowdsourcing. When he pitched the idea to me, I had just completed an IPO (initial public offering) and was indeed trying to enjoy my life. So he came to me and said, “I’m starting to work on Hyperloop and there are a hundred people working for me in exchange for stock options." And when I asked him how much money he had raised, his answer was, “Nothing". Even though I said “No" to him, he persisted and sent me the white paper. I went through it and also saw that former scientists from National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Boeing, Tesla and SpaceX were working on this without any money. After two months of studying the project, I realized that the technologies required to do this existed and top scientists were working on giving us the solution. That’s when I went back to Dirk and said to him, “You need someone who knows how to create an organization to do this—and I’m your man."
How large is your team now and what is the profile of the core team?
There are about 30 employees in Los Angeles, Barcelona, the UAE and Czech Republic. We are also opening a facility in Toulouse, France. If you include the contributors as well, the number of people working for us would be over 600. And if you count the companies working with us, you reach more than 800 people. The core team includes engineers, marketing and legal people, chief information officers, architects and designers, among others.
How do you work with the contributors?
The crowdsourcing model we work on is very simple. Imagine forming teams of about seven people, plus or minus two. The structure of the teams, which are formed around specific tasks, comprises a hypermaster, a project manager and the team members. The hypermaster decides “when" and “how"; the project manager decides “what"; and the team members are the experts who can actually work on it. The teams work on “sprints", which are typically four to six weeks long but can sometimes be longer. We tend to follow a lean model. First, the team agrees on a sprint and the “what", “when" and “how", and then they start to split. At the end of the sprint, a document is prepared based on the assumption that it will give you the result. This goes anonymously to a validation team—we call it the ghost team—and everything is organized using Facebook Workplace. The platform is the main point of reference for all the teams. I can see and monitor all the groups in real time. Of course, different people have different levels or access rights.
Is this operating model causing the delays in Hyperloop or are there other reasons for it?
Absolutely not, the model is working just fine. We have delays on just two counts. The first was when Dirk wanted to do an IPO but I stopped it, saying that this is not the moment for us to do an IPO—you should have a running system for that. The second delay is because even though we filed for permit for construction of the test track in California, they (the government) said they have six months to approve. From that moment, we did every possible construction. Right now, they have asked us to do an environmental study and we have had to pay $200,000 out of our pocket to do a study on a piece of desert that doesn’t have any environmental concern. So, do you think this is a situation where the government is fostering the construction of the Hyperloop? The answer is, “No!" In the meantime, I’ve had 20 negotiations going on in 20 nations and I’ve signed up with five new governments to give us land worth $25 million. So we are waiting for the permit to build. We can have one test track up and running in a few months. In reality, it would depend on the governments and the permissions.
How do you see Hyperloop fitting in with the chaotic, multimodal transportation scenario in India?
First of all, we are doing this in partnership with firms in India. We have a global tie-up with Atkins—a design, engineering and project management consulting firm—and we are working with their Indian office. As you know, they are behind a lot of rail projects here in India. We are using their expertise to design systems that integrate intermodally with the existing routes.
In the beginning, I foresee Hyperloop being built on top or using the existing right of way—on top of the rail, in the middle of highways or aside of the highways.
So, what you need to understand about the Hyperloop is not the speed but the efficiency. While 1,223km per hour is the top speed, it doesn’t mean we have to go at that speed all the way. You can build a local system that goes like a Metro.
Our Inductrack technology for magnetically levitating the capsule has two modes: one designed for low speed and another for high speed. So, we can even propose a system that competes with the rail system or the Metro. And it would be more efficient, because when you use a combination of renewable energy—solar power, wind, kinetic energy, regenerative braking and, in some places, geothermal as well—it can produce up to 30% more energy than we consume. Using Hyperloop, we can transport up to 24 million people per tube in a year.
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