When Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk first dropped a white paper in 2013 outlining his ideas for a hyperloop transport system that he claimed could move passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in half an hour, it was met with both wonder and disbelief.
Musk invited interested parties to take the idea and run with it, since he didn't have time to pursue the quirky, ambitious project himself. A startup took up the challenge and now is getting closer to making the hyperloop a reality, thanks to a unique crowdsourcing model and philosophy.
Hyperloop Transportation Technologies plans to start construction on a 5-mile full-scale hyperloop in the planned community of Quay Valley, California next year. The company announced earlier this week that Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum and engineering design firm Aecom had agreed to provide their expertise to the project in exchange for stock options. The century-old Oerlikon worked on CERN's large hadron collider, which has been called "Earth's most powerful physics machine."
Hyperloop Transportations Technologies CEO Dirk Ahlborn credits much of his success in moving the project forward thus far to the organizational model his company uses.
“It’s a very unique model, but it’s a model that works amazingly,” he says.
The majority of the hyperloop project’s 400 team members are working on the project remotely across the country in exchange for stock options. They're divided into groups of four to seven people devoted to specific parts of the project, such as levitation of the hyperloop capsule, energy storage, and propulsion. Some newer members are still free-floating.
Groups are siloed to protect trade secrets--this means most group members only know about what other groups are working on if it’s directly relevant to their own tasks.
Ahlborn describes the way they work as a modified version of the scrum method of completing complex projects. Teams work on “the smallest possible task” at a time. The scrum framework typically requires daily meetings, but since teams work remotely they meet maybe once a week.
Team members use software created by Ahlborn’s other company, JumpStartFund, a crowdsourcing and crowdfunding online incubator out of which Hyperloop Transportation Technologies was born. On Fridays, for example, each group member sends a message through JumpStartFund software detailing what they’re working on and their availability for the next week (many have day jobs), and the software generates a message compiling the information to be released to the whole group on Monday.
The hyperloop project also crowdsources input from a wider, more casual group of about 10,000 interested people who can earn a cut of future profits based on the amount of work they contribute, according to Ahlborn.
Born in Germany and migrating to Italy at the age of 18, Ahlborn says his experiences coming of age as an entrepreneur in Europe shaped his ideas about how entrepreneurship should be approached.
“We used to do things in communities,” says Ahlborn, describing where his interest in crowdsourcing comes from. He describes pre-industrial revolution rural communities banding together to ensure completion of the harvest at each family farm in the locality.
Ahlborn says he wonders why other companies don’t reach out to the crowd for help getting projects done. JumpStartFund and the Hyperloop project are merely “going back to basics,” he says.
“Money is not the most important thing. Money is secondary,” he says.
Even so, he believes that among the team members working on the project, a handful will likely become millionaires when the hyperloop takes off.