You shouldn’t think this, but when talking to the remarkably modest Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and the man charged with making Elon Musk’s dream of a supersonic transport system a reality, you cannot help but hear in your head a song from The Simpsons: “There’s nothing on earth like a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car Monorail!.”
It’s a joke that the German-born CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a scheduled speaker at 4YFN in Barcelona, has heard many times. “In fact they did an episode featuring Elon and the Hyperloop,” says Ahlborn, a man who does not take himself too seriously.
There is something so outrageous, so extreme, about the idea of the Hyperloop — which Ahlborn has described as a metro system for a country — that it is almost impossible to tell fact from fiction.
The plan — and later this year construction will begin on a small-scale roll-out — is to send fleets of 30- to 40-person shuttles down a sealed, low-pressure, pylon-mounted tube. Because of the low pressure, these shuttles can travel at supersonic speeds, slashing transport times between, say, Los Angeles and San Francisco to perhaps 30 minutes. It has been described as a cross between Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table.
It sounds like more of a Shelbyville kind of an idea.
New Kind Of Company
And if that were not enough, the Berlin-born Ahlborn, who moved to the U.S. in 2010, is building the Hyperloop with a company that has over 500 people working for it yet no employees and has raised not a cent in financing. Although he seems reluctant to admit it, Ahlborn is building a completely new kind of transport system via a completely new kind of company.
“The whole concept was born using open-source methodology and giving a place where entrepreneurs could build a community around ideas and technologies and make them their personal ventures,” he says.
Rather than being employees, the 500+ people who work for Ahlborn are doing so in a sort of open-source-meets-bootstrapped-start-up model. “Everybody is working in exchange for stock options,” he explains. “They work a minimum of 10 hours a week. For each hour they work they receive a certain amount of options in the company. It is basically not much different to any start-up company.
“Normally at the beginning [of a start-up] you don’t get a salary, you’re working just because of the passion and the belief you have. In our case it’s just amplified.”
This doesn’t mean he is working with a bunch of unemployed engineering graduates — far from it. Some of the smartest people in the field are working with Ahlborn, including some from Fortune 500 companies, tackling huge engineering problems.
Break Ground In 2016
“We are working with some of the largest transportation companies in the world to supply them with some of these solutions, or to work together on them.”
Nor is this just a huge pipe dream. Ahlborn has obtained the permits to construct a small-scale — some eight kilometers in length — version of the project in Quay Valley, a proposed 75,000-resident solar-powered city situated halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
He is confident that they will break ground later this year, with a view to having traveling customers by 2018/19.
It is a huge leap for a man who cut his teeth in business in Italy selling cleaning products.
Business was never Ahlborn’s intention. Growing up in Berlin, he started in banking but quickly realized it wasn’t for him.
“I could see my life in banking: it was mostly about finding a girlfriend, getting a house, getting a dog, getting married, getting kids, retiring and then dying.”
Born in West Berlin, Germany, the son of a carpenter.
Begins professional career as a broker and investment specialist at Bankgesellshaft Berlin, AG, one of Germany’s largest banks.
Moves to Italy and creates multiple companies focusing on renewable energy.
Joins Girvan Institute of Technology and oversees the creation and incubation of several tech start-ups including Advanced Turbine Designs, Inc.
Founds JumpStartFund a web portal that creates smarter, more successful companies via crowdsourcing from idea conception through funding.
Becomes CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), a company created along with 100 professional team members through JumpStartFund, to crowdsource the development of the Hyperloop.
HTT publishes its Hyperloop feasibility study and begins work on prototypes.
HTT enters into land deal with GROW Holdings, Inc. to create the world’s first full-scale Hyperloop prototype along a five-mile stretch of the I-5 Freeway at Quay Valley in Central Valley, California.
HTT announces key partnerships with Oerlikon-Leybold, the leader in industrial vacuum technology, and AECOM, one of the world’s largest engineering construction firms.
Now with over 500 team members, HTT announces permit filing and construction timeline in Kings County, California for Quay Valley installation.
“One day I read an article in a local magazine, and it said they were looking for sales reps in Italy, even without language skills.”
He ended up in the U.S. 15 years later, after having built his own company in Italy, because “I met an American girl, she got pregnant and didn’t want to live in Europe. So I had to move to America if I ever wanted to be with my kids.”
‘Driven By Passion’
He arrived in California in 2010. One thing led to another and soon he was working as an advisor to the Girvan Institute of Technology in Los Angeles, a NASA-backed not-for-profit incubator.
In 2012, he says, he realized that the crowd-funding model was a big opportunity. However, rather than using it to source funding Ahlborn saw it as a great way to bring people together to build companies.
“People use the Internet for almost everything. We order food, we get our dry cleaning, we find a boyfriend or girlfriend online. But when it comes to creating companies it’s normally you with a buddy and a beer in a bar.”
This was the birth of JumpStartFund. When Musk first kicked around the idea for Hyperloop, Ahlborn got permission to post Hyperloop on the platform, “and from there it took off.”
Although Ahlborn plays down the uniqueness of his business model, there really is nothing quite like it. One of his rival Hyperloop companies, confusingly called Hyperloop Technologies, has gone down a far more traditional route, raising venture funds and hiring people. For Ahlborn, this makes little sense. Using the open-source model has proved to be Hyperloop Transportation Technologies’ secret sauce. The open-source model “is driven by passion,” says Ahlborn. “If you’re part of a [regular] company than employees don’t really care. They are there because they have to eat.
Building A Movement
“In our case the main reason people are with us is because they believe in what we are doing.”
You would be forgiven for thinking that such a radical structure would frighten investors — anything but.
“We have over 600 accredited and institutional investors that have reached out to invest in the company. Then we have some larger funds that basically want to fund the whole operation. And we are talking with several governments as well.”
Ahlborn is determined that those who have given their time should have the chance to share in the company’s success. To that end he is planning on organizing a public offering, although he isn’t entirely sure yet what form that might take.
“If you were one of the first users of Facebook, if you had invested $20 in it when it did its A round, today that $20 would be worth $500,000. But even if you were the most active person on Facebook at that time, you invited everybody, you liked a lot of things, because of legal restrictions you were not able to invest. We want to make sure that our community is part of this from the beginning.”
When asked if this is how companies of the future will operate, Ahlborn stops. “We are not building a company,” he muses. “We are building a movement.”