Pioneer Startups Podcast | High-Speed Transport: The Hyperloop Way

Pioneer Startups Podcast | High-Speed Transport: The Hyperloop Way

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(bright music) Hello everyone, I'm Paul Musto, and welcome back to another episode of "Siemens Startups," a podcast series where we speak with entrepreneurs to gain insight on how they turn their innovative dreams into successful companies. I'm really excited about the episode today. We are speaking to Rob Miller. Rob is the current Chief Marketing Officer at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is a global company that is developing commercial transportation systems based on the Hyperloop concept.

And if you're not aware of the Hyperloop concept, although Rob's gonna do a much better job explaining this here in a few moments, is described as a large vacuum-sealed tube that has a very low air pressure which allows a pod carrying people or cargo to travel free of air resistance or friction at very high speeds. This is something I've been interested for through the years since it's a concept that was conceived to kind of revolutionize public transportation, something I think we sorely need here especially in the United States, and in particular for long-distance travel, and offered at a substantially lower cost and with far less impact on the environment. So, without further ado, let's introduce our guest, Rob Miller.

Hi, Rob. Welcome and thanks for coming on. I've been looking forward to speaking and learning more about Hyperloop technology, and specifically Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. So, let's just start with a quick introduction from yourself and let everybody know who we'll be speaking with today. (Rob) Hi Paul, and thanks for the opportunity to come and talk about Hyperloop and our vision for the future. I've been with the company since early 2016, so I guess that's where we're coming up on six years pretty soon, which makes me an elder statesman in the world of Hyperloop, 'cause Hyperloop as a concept dates back to 2013.

So, for me, this is one of the, if not the most, exciting project on the planet. It's been a blast watching this go from, in the early, this was schematics and drawings and a concept, to reality. So, it's been a fun five, six years. (Paul) So, speaking of which, I mean, so you say the technology dates back to 2013.

How did the concept originate and how did it develop and how did companies pick it up? (Rob) Yeah sure, I mean, when we talk about Hyperloop, the name Hyperloop, it's something that Elon Musk and a team at SpaceX coined back in 2013 when they released the Alpha paper. But the idea for Hyperloop goes back a lot longer than that. We can go back to the 1850s where two gentlemen underneath New York City had tried to build essentially a transportation system that would be similar to what a Hyperloop is today. The first patent for what we would consider Hyperloop, 1918, Robert Goddard. So, I think humans have been thinking about how to move in evacuated tube systems now for a long time, but it really popularized itself in 2013, that's when we started working on it as well.

(Paul) So, did Elon Musk create anything new? Because my understanding was that the actual technology was open sourced, in a sense, or his designs were open sourced for other companies to pick up and develop on their own. (Rob) Yeah, I think what he did was he laid a vision for, what he said at the time was he wasn't happy with the idea of the current high-speed rail situation in California. The price tag was 70 billion and growing. It would get you from Los Angeles to San Francisco in three hours. So, he didn't see that as kind of a leapfrog, so he said that this is an idea he's putting out, and he said he was too busy to build it, so he asked others to pick it up.

At that time, we reached out to space SpaceX and they said if we could tackle this, they said, "Blast it off." So, we started to develop it. The technology itself, though, Paul, I mean, we've innovated on current technology in a number of ways, and we can talk about that.

But the technology is already existing technology. It's really that no one's put it together before. I think that's the important part when we talk about Hyperloop. And for those that are thinking that Hyperloop can't happen, there's nothing really revolutionary in the technology itself. It's all tech that we're using in some form today in transportation or in other industries. (Paul) Yeah, actually, we kind of jumped ahead a little bit.

I gave a little bit of a description of what Hyperloop technology really is, but maybe you can kind of elaborate on that description, try to get people to visualize exactly what it is. I know there's been some news on it and some media on it, but explain exactly how it works. (Rob) What Hyperloop is, essentially, we call it a capsule, which is some people call it a Hyperloop train. Basically looks like a small airplane fuselage without the wings or without the tail.

You put that in the tube. We vacuum out the air to create a low-friction environment. We're using a magnetic levitation technology, a next-generation maglev.

And essentially what you get, you get airplane speeds on the ground where you're able to move safely, efficiently, sustainably. What that mean is that you could go from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 36 minutes. You could go from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in 26 minutes.

It would really help to revolutionize the way we think about where we work, where we live, and redefine our concept of distance. (Paul) And this capsule or passenger carrier, physically, it's touching nothing within the tube itself, correct? (Rob) Yes, eventually. We'll start off on wheels like an airplane. It's a passive magnetic levitation system, which means that the track is layered aluminum, it's unpowered and it's uncooled.

So, once you get up to a certain speed, you get magnetic levitation, you get that lift, and then you truly are, in a sense, floating through the tube at low pressures. (Paul) And we talk about high speeds, but give our audience a little bit of an idea, what we mean by high speeds when it comes to Hyperloop. (Rob) Hyperloop was billed as speed of sound travel. We could take you at the speed of sound, which is somewhere around 760 miles per hour.

The first Hyperloop system is probably somewhere between 600 and 700 miles per hour. There's about 10% of us that are willing to sign up on day one when we talk about traveling at the speed of sound, right, Paul? But a lot of people are hesitant. But the reality is that we've traveled at near those speeds in commercial airliners where you're routinely going 550-600 miles per hour when you travel by airplane. So, it's something that we all kind of understand, we just don't go that fast on the ground. (Paul) I really enjoyed watching the video on your website because it shows this very luxurious cabin and people just sitting there and laughing and talking, and I'm thinking to myself, if you're traveling 700 miles per hour, is it really going to be a sensation like an airplane sensation where you're not going to feel any of the exterior or the speed that you're traveling or any of the exterior effects? So, is that the case? (Rob) Yeah, that's 'cause we get that question a lot. And this is not a rollercoaster ride or it's not a rocket, we're not strapping you in a five-point safety harness.

The reality is you don't feel speed but you do feel acceleration. So, we're keeping the acceleration to .1 G, which is less than you would experience in driving a Tesla, for example.

So, the ride is designed to be completely smooth and it would, you know, we are designing it so that, we in some cases don't have final say over this, but we're designing the Hyperloop so that you wouldn't require a seatbelt at any time. It would be smooth enough so that you could walk around the capsule with a hot cup of coffee or a glass of wine and really enjoy the experience. The other part, Paul, is that we're trying to build, it's a new form of transportation, so we have an opportunity, and I think an obligation, to build a system from the inside out. We all have experienced travel today. And as we're recording this, we're coming into a holiday season where a lot of people are kind of dreading the getting from one point to another, because middle seats and crowded planes and TSA, travel has really become a burden rather than a pleasure.

So, for us, we're trying to build the Hyperloop so that we can kind of restore that joy of the journey a little bit and build it inside out so that we can use today's technologies to create a great experience for passengers. (Paul) Yeah, and I can relate to that. I mean, as somebody who traveled all over the world, I mean, I find traveling even on just trains really a much more enjoyable experience in general. But it's slow, right? It's not as fast as air travel.

I mean, air travel today is just ridiculous and what you go through at airports and things like that to do that. I mean, that's what intrigues me about this kind of technology, especially in the US where we don't really have a comprehensive rail system like maybe some of the other countries do. So, I think this has come long overdue. And you mentioned that earlier, I kind of want to go back to that about the innovations, because, again, I noticed on your website that there were additional patents that Hyperloop TT has created from the base pieces of it. Can you speak to that a little bit? (Rob) Sure, I think every from, I mean, we're very excited about some of the innovations that we've built from this next-generation maglev, which was called Inductrack, built by Lawrence Livermore National Lab back in the 1990s. It's a passive magnetic levitation system.

For us, it's a little bit of the secret sauce of the Hyperloop. That and the mixture of injecting some noble gases into the system, we have a patent there. Elon Musk set this vision out in 2013 and we've just been trying to in the interim improve on it, and keep developing, keep iterating, keep making it smoother, more efficient. It's something like, we're at the iPhone 4 model now, and in a few years we'll be at the 7 or the 8. We have the ability to keep iterating and keep improving the technology.

(Paul) Yeah, and it's fascinating. I've worked with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies now for a couple of years, so I've had the opportunity to talk to a few people and learn about the company. You have a very interesting development model.

Did the company actually start in 2013? (Rob) We did our initial feasibility study in 2013 and we were incorporated as a company shortly thereafter. We've been at this as long as anyone towards Hyperloop. But the way we're doing it is actually really unique.

We've been fortunate enough to have Harvard Business School write two case studies on the company that's being taught now at Harvard and USC and other business schools around the world. Basically, Paul, if you and I, today, if we decided today that we're going to start our own Hyperloop company, we're going to branch off and we're going to leave our respective roles, start our own competitive Hyperloop company, what would it take for us to get started? You would need expertise in at least two dozen engineering fields, right? Aerospace, aeronautics, vacuum technology, nuclear physics, magnetic levitation, and a dozen or two others, right? I'm here in Los Angeles, you're there in Florida. You know, likely, some of that expertise is here in LA, probably they're employed by good companies. Bringing them onto the team would be an expensive endeavor, along with developing the technology. So, to get started in Hyperloop or to build a prototype is a multi-hundred million dollar, maybe a billion-dollar proposition to get there. And that's why there are just iterations and not true innovation in transportation, is that it's a challenging road.

What we did was, there's a reality that we have the ability to connect people around the world now, and you have this cognitive surplus in the world of people that have done great things, want to work on projects that could revolutionize transportation like Hyperloop, really don't have a vehicle to do that. So, we did a call-to-action in 2013 and asked for engineers to figure out if this was actually something that is feasible and that we could do. And we had generated just a tremendous amount of interest from people at companies that are all familiar to us, from people that had done things like built the Large Hadron Collider. We even had somebody who passed away since that had participated in the Manhattan Project. So, it was really an outstanding group. And instead of contracting them, what we did is we said we would give them equity in the company via stock options for working a few hours a week on the project.

That's how we got started, where everyone was we what we call a contributor, working for stock options. We've evolved over time so that we now have 50-60 employees and we have 50 partners, around 800 contributors who have participated in Hyperloop. So, it's allowed us to really, at a fraction of the hard development costs, to accelerate our development and to be able to access the expertise that we've needed to bring it to life. (Paul) Yeah, I mean, this podcast series is all about exposing or introducing to people, other entrepreneurs, some creative ways of being able to get their company off the ground and source expertise. I mean, that's one of the biggest challenges I constantly hear from other startup companies is getting the talent and the resources to get their company to that next level. And when I saw 800-plus contributors, ang give people an idea of where these contributors are.

It's not like they're all in Los Angeles, right? They're spread out all over the world, right? (Rob) We are around the world, which is our blessing and our curse, at least for sleeping some days at a normal workday. But the reality is that that's opened so many doors for us because Hyperloop is not an American project. It's not a French project, it's not an Emirati project.

This is really a global project. So, we've been able to really build a global company through the expertise and find the right people or allow the right people to find us who were able to help the company move forward. (Paul) Part of that is now you have cities around the globe who are also interested in working with Hyperloop TT on putting up test tracks and things like that, right? So, some of those, from what I'm aware of, Dubai is very interested in Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. What are some of the other cities that you've been talking to? (Rob) The closer to home, the most interested early adopter for Hyperloop is this Chicago to Cleveland to Pittsburgh route.

Essentially, it's interesting because that route is about halfway from Chicago to New York. And if you think about transportation or the way transportation has grown in the US, it's really been that populous Eastern Seaboard to Midwest is kind of helped the growth of the country. So, we're really excited about that route. We've completed this multistage feasibility study. We're moving in next year to an environmental impact statement.

That will allow us to hopefully be the first Hyperloop route in the States that's being built. Otherwise, we've had interest around the world. We've built our full-scale prototype in Toulouse, France.

Toulouse is considered the space capital of Europe, home of Airbus and a number of other really great companies that are working in aeronautics and aerospace, just a tremendous engineering force there. So, we've done a lot of development there. We have an agreement in Abu Dhabi, at the border of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, to build a five-kilometer system. We've worked everywhere from China to Ukraine to Indonesia on exploring and bringing Hyperloop to life. So, there's a lot of interest and it's a race and a bit to see where the first ones get built. (Paul) Yeah, I mean, it's incredible that you have cities like that that are interested in making that kind of investment.

Have there been test tracks put together? Are there proof-of-concept modules put together? (Rob) So, our proof-of-concept is in Toulouse, France, and that's the first full-scale Hyperloop system. We talked about tube travel, our tubes are about four meters in diameter, about 16 feet, it's 320 meters long, about a quarter-mile. That's where most of our development and innovation is happening. (Paul) So, we were talking earlier about the fact that the original concept is kind of an open-source idea, you do have patents and everything else. There aren't a lot of companies that are investing in this technology, but there are a few and a few big names. I mean, how do you see Hyperloop Transportation Technologies differentiating themselves against the other competitors that are out there? (Rob) There are a few companies that are developing Hyperloop seriously.

We've been working on it longer than anyone, we have the full-scale system, we have a unique technology stack. But we're also mindful that this is an industry, and an industry that we've probably helped to create. So, if you look at aviation or you look at rail travel, there's not one company that's exclusive around the world, it's dozens of companies. So, we expect that would be the case in Hyperloop as well. We feel very proud of the work that we've done to date, but we're also excited to see others take this up and help bring it to life.

(Paul) That's an interesting point, too. I've spoken to many people in the space tech industry and there's what we call the healthy competition, right? So, even though there are companies developing similar technology, competing for the same kind of maybe consumer dollars, there's also a level of collaboration to make sure that there's success, right? Is that the same for this Hyperloop area? (Rob) It's the rising-tide-floats-all-boats type of effect, and we absolutely feel that. We feel that others in the space have that sense of friendly competitiveness and cooperation as well. (Paul) Yeah, and I see other ones, they're kind of branching off, maybe focusing on freight instead of passenger travel and so forth.

So, I'm sure as it develops, everybody's going to carve out their own niche, right? (Rob) Absolutely. (Paul) Let's shift gears a little bit. I mentioned a little bit earlier that I've worked with Hyperloop for a couple of years now and I think the partnership's been great. Maybe you can speak to a little bit from your perspective and kind of what that partnership with Siemens kind of means with Hyperloop and kind of how you see it going forward? (Rob) Yeah, so, we'd reached out I guess back in 2018 or 2017 to explore, initially, the PLM software. And now fast forward three, four years, it's been a fantastic partnership and something that really has grown and something where our engineers have, as we've developed, we've kind of developed into the need for additional tools and products as well.

So, I think, for us, we would say that we're very proud to have Siemens as a partner and a friend. You guys are literally helping us to bring this thing to life. (Paul) It's good, I mean, it's been fantastic, and certainly an experience for us to kind of get almost a front-row seat in some of the most advanced technology being developed out there. I mentioned earlier, I actually mentioned to one of your peers about wanting the first ride.

And I kind of meant that half-jokingly, but it's like you said, it seems to be, might be a little bit of a scary experience, but he actually told me that the queue is way long and there are a lot of people who are willing to jump on that first trip, so. Actually, speaking of which, do you have any idea when you think you might have the first or what the goal is for first commercial travel? (Rob) We're finalizing an announcement of where that might be. So, we're excited to be announcing that in the next few months. Our goal is that we have millions of passengers traveling by Hyperloop in the 2020s.

So, we want to bring this to life by the end of the decade. Well before we have millions of passengers traveling, Paul, you and I will be able to ride in a shorter, a three to five-mile Hyperloop that we'll use for certification, and that's the mid-2020s. So, I think the important thing, when you hear about Hyperloop it's something that, hopefully, is not new to the listeners here, but there's still a lot of question of, okay, is that really going to be built? I think we've reached this tipping point where it's not a matter of if anymore, it's a matter of when. So, Hyperloop is here. Hyperloop is coming. We'll be riding in it very soon.

(Paul) Yeah, that's an interesting point, too. I've read articles, watched YouTube videos and things like that, and there are definitely multiple camps on both sides of the fence in terms of whether or not this is going to be viable in the future. So, it's kind of interesting, and working with Hyperloop, there's no question that there's interest investment and a desire to have some of this technology come to fruition. So, I don't see that anything's gonna really stop that.

Actually, one of the other questions, it was kind of jumping in my head as you were speaking earlier as you were talking about the environmental aspects of it too, and certainly, when we look at the future of mobility, that's going to play a huge role in that, I'm sure. For Hyperloop, is that a big focus? (Rob) Absolutely, Paul. I think, for us and our team, we're as excited or more excited about the sustainability aspect as the speed. We live in a world where 23% of global carbon emissions are in transportation.

Pollution from transportation is taking months and sometimes years of life expectancy away in some of these major cities. When you think about a transportation system for the future, I think the transition to electric vehicles is a great one, but we're still at 2% adoption in the US. Hopefully, that will continue to grow. But when we look at mass transportation systems, Hyperloop is completely emissions-free in operation. When you're traveling above ground, we're using solar panels on top of the Hyperloop system. So, in addition to the kinetic energy gains through regenerative braking in the system, let's say the example from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, 26 minutes, you have several hundred miles of solar panels, so you have this massive solar energy farm that rides along the top of the Hyperloop.

And so what that means is that you can capture, during operations it's possible to capture more energy than you consume. Which is a radical proposition, but being in a low-pressure environment, it's a very low energy use system. So, if that's the possibility and we're capturing energy, can you plug into the Hyperloop system essentially? Can the Hyperloop system give energy back to the grid? And along with that efficiency and sustainability, we're able to keep, hopefully, ticket prices low. So, it's not a bullet train cost, it's not an airplane cost. This is more like commuter rail, and hopefully, like the cost of a bus ticket. (Paul) Yeah, I saw $20.

It was kind of like a target ticket price for something from LA to San Francisco or something like that would be a typical cost, it would be $20. But I mean, as a viable alternative to flying or driving, most of us, especially in the US, we drive and fly because of convenience, especially the driving part, right? I've been out to the west coast here in Florida, the traffic is horrendous because there's no real viable alternative to driving, right? So, we definitely need those alternatives. Hey, Rob, just a couple quick questions for entrepreneurs. You actually gave some really good insight around the unique approach that Hyperloop took in terms of scaling an engineering team. Any other thoughts for the entrepreneurs who are listening to this in terms of what it takes to get a company off the ground and some of the challenges that you need to overcome? (Rob) In the past five, six years, the thing that I've been surrounded with, and, for me, what the biggest learning was being surrounded with people that are passionate about your project regardless of where they are in the world, people that have a mind towards entrepreneurship, because for some of us, it's natural, but for others, we grew up in a place where you go to school, you find a job, you work that job. Entrepreneurship is not something that's really taught, but it's something that needs to be learned.

So, surrounding yourself with people that are like-minded and that are doing similar things and those who want to help you to bring your idea to life is absolutely critical. The other piece is resiliency. So, change is inevitable, it's really how you react to that change.

And for us, it's been, for me, the most rewarding five years of my career. And at times it's also been the toughest five years of my career because there's no roadmap, there's no you sit down and follow the footsteps of those that have done it before. There are tremendous swings in the same day. You could wake up and the sky is falling and then you're celebrating that night because you've reached some milestone. We're fortunate that we have an extremely resilient team.

And finding people that can go through those ups and downs with you I think is another equally important piece to it. (Paul) Yeah, and that is remarkably true. I gotta tell you, one of the things that's really impressed me about Hyperloop TT is that, you know, I've worked with you for a couple of years, and pretty much the team has been pretty sound and solid. There hasn't been a lot of turnover. And I know, during the COVID period, it got a little bit challenging. I think for every company, especially startup companies, it got extraordinarily challenging, and yet the team kind of stuck together.

And then you talked about the collaboration amongst people who don't even work for the company and they're working for, potentially, some equity in the company. And we're not just talking about like anybody, we're talking about professors in academia and trained engineers and engineers that are working with other companies all contributing on this in a really productive way, pretty incredible. (Rob) And I would say to add to that, Paul, I think another piece of advice is choose your partners well. I think one advantage of working with Siemens is that you guys are invested in our success.

So, when we've needed you for support and for help as we continue to grow, your team has been there. So, I think that's one thing that, we're fortunate to have you guys as a partner because you're kind of with us through the good times and the bad times, and you have a product that's strong enough, that gets us from the design phase to the operation, but your team is always willing to help us if we're ever struggling. So, thank you for that.

(Paul) I really appreciate that. And for our audience, that was unsolicited, by the way. I know many people think of Siemens as this very large corporation that don't spend a lot of time with startups, but I can speak to it personally, for the last couple years this has been a passion of mine to work with companies like yours and it's been, to be quite frank about it, an honor to be able to interact and work with folks like yourself, Rob.

So, I appreciate that very much. Any parting words for our audience before I kind of close out? I know we've been chatting for quite a while here. (Rob) No, just get excited because we are in the generation of Hyperloop and we're going to bring this to life and hopefully others will as well, so we hope to see you on a ride sometime soon. (Paul) I'll definitely be on it. I'm not sure about the first one, but I'll definitely be on one, that's for sure.

I'd love to go for one of the launch events. But thanks again, Rob. - Absolutely. (Paul) So, I want to thank everybody for listening today. At Siemens, we do understand that it's a challenge to get your company up and running. We have programs, as Rob mentioned, to help companies at any size get off the ground and get their products to market as soon as they possibly can.

So, I appreciate you listening here today. If you want, please visit us at And this is Paul Musto, thank you for listening again. If you would like, please give me some feedback at Spotify or Apple Podcasts, or you can email me directly at

And remember, innovation has no boundaries, thank you. (bright music)

2023-12-11 21:04

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