“Travel anywhere on earth in a rocket under an hour.” Elon Musk revealed his vision for the new transport system at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide, Australia. He said the price for a ticket would rival that of an economy airline flight.
While it will take another 6-9 months for the project to begin, we took a look at something similar and audacious he had proposed a few years earlier—the Hyperloop.
The aim was to understand how Musk makes these radical innovations possible and how exactly he propels innovation. During the course of research, there were two things that stood out.
- While it took 100 years for high-speed trains to become mainstream, how is hyperloop evolving at such a drastic pace in mere 4 years?
- How did SpaceX, with literally no investment, achieve a top speed higher than that of Hyperloop-One, a company with $140 million in funding?
Evolution of the Hyperloop
When the high-speed rail network between Los Angeles and San Francisco was announced, Elon Musk expressed his disappointment saying,
“How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley – doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?”
Critiquing without a solution is just complaining. Musk, being who he is, proposed a solution. In 2013, Elon Musk pulled a famous all-nighter to publish a whitepaper on a revolutionary transportation system called Hyperloop.
Soon the world got into a Hyperloop frenzy.
When asked, he said it is a transportation system that is best suited for distances below 500 miles and described it as a cross between the Concorde, airgun, and an air hockey table.
Birth of an Industry
Two months after the paper was published, The first hyperloop company—Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, was incorporated in Nevada. The company has been formed completely by collaboration and crowdsourcing the collective knowledge of 600 engineers around the world through the JumpStart Inc.
The company has begun construction of the world's first full-scale Passenger Hyperloop Capsule and five-mile test track in Quay Valley, California, and has signed agreements with the more than half-a-dozen governments, namely Slovakia, Abu Dhabi, India, France, South Korea, and the Czech Republic to co-develop Hyperloop. Within the next few years, numerous hyperloop companies sprung up around the globe, and thus an industry was born.
Hyperloop One (now called Virgin Hyperloop One), a prominent player in this space, has secured a total funding of $140.1 million and conducted its first full-system test in July 2017. The pod clocked a top speed of 192 mph (308 km per hour), almost tripling the speed within a month.
How did the concept catch on so fast and so well?
In terms of the innovation matrix, the Hyperloop falls in the radical quadrant. Both the technology and business model newness are extremely high.
Less than 10% of all innovation falls under this category. The typical innovation process involving in-house R&D is not sufficient to crack a radical innovation of such magnitude.
In case of Hyperloop, the progress that has been achieved has not come from one single company. It is the result of collaboration among thousands of engineers, students, and a few companies.
Musk could have made the Hyperloop a secret project, created patents, and formed a successful company. Instead, he chose to crowdsource and collaborate to create a movement.
This is not the first time he has done it. Back in 2014, Elon Musk wrote an article “All our patents belong to you” and opened the Tesla patents to the entire industry. He said,
“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”
How SpaceX propelled innovation with no investment?
While Musk was not developing any commercial Hyperloops and plans lay dormant for almost 3 years, SpaceX announced Hyperloop pod competitions in late 2015 to accelerate the development of functional prototypes.
SpaceX has made no significant investment in Hyperloop. The mile-long test track was built by its partner Aecom. In fact, there were no cash prizes for the winners. The only significant investment was the time spent by the volunteers of SpaceX and The Boring Company.
The first competition was held in January 2016, where nearly 700 teams registered.
The second competition, which focused on top speed, was held in August 2017. The team named WARR Hyperloop from Germany, formed by a group of 30 students, won the competition with a top speed of 201 mph (324 km per hour).
Though these competitions might look like a PR stunt, each had a clear goal. The first competition focused on making a functional prototype, the second competition on achieving high speed, and the third competition that will be held in the Summer of 2018 will focus on top-speed combined with the successful deceleration of the self-propelled pods.
The big radical innovation chunk has been broken down to smaller incremental innovations.
What Hyperloop One was able to do with roughly $140 Million, Elon Musk did via crowdsourcing innovation.
- To make radical innovations happen, even the process of innovation has to evolve.
- To accelerate innovation, it is crucial to be open and collaborate.
- Crowdsourcing can be a powerful innovation tool when tied to a clear goal.