In 2013, SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced his wildest idea yet: the Hyperloop. Musk envisioned the Hyperloop as a fifth transportation system that could get you from Cornell’s campus to see your favorite artist at Madison Square Garden in under thirty minutes. While for many of us, this seems like technology fit for science fiction novels, it’s becoming increasingly real for one group of Cornell students.
Julian Moraes, a sophomore at Cornell studying Applied Economics and Management, is the business lead for OpenLoop: a cross-campus alliance founded on Cornell’s campus to make the Hyperloop a reality. OpenLoop is in the process of designing and building a pod suitable for a Hyperloop track in June 2016 as a participant in SpaceX’s Hyperloop competition. Julian recently took some time to share his thoughts on OpenLoop and student innovation with Entrepreneurship@Dyson, which are featured below:
Can you tell me a little bit about your project?
To first provide some context, two years ago, Elon Musk published a paper explaining the concept of the Hyperloop. The Hyperloop is a pod-transport system powered by linear induction motors in a near-vacuum tube. Musk envisions the Hyperloop being an alternative to high-speed train travel, as it’s capable of reaching speeds of 760 mph while remaining more efficient from both a cost and energy perspective than any other current modes of transport. But despite Musk’s involvement in pioneering this technology, his roles at SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity leave him without time to bring this technology to market himself. Now, to accelerate the development of the Hyperloop, SpaceX is hosting a student competition in which qualified entrants can design and build a sub-scale pod. Since the competition was announced, students from Cornell, Princeton, Harvey Mudd, Northeastern, the University of Michigan, and Memorial University in Newfoundland have come together to form OpenLoop: a cross-campus team working to develop a single top notch Hyperloop pod design.
How did OpenLoop get started?
Nick Parker, a Computer Science engineer at Cornell, founded OpenLoop once he realized there existed enough interest
at Cornell and other schools to sustain the operation. Our team has grown since then to include approximately 110 undergraduate, graduate and PhD students from across the continent, which is a key characteristic that sets OpenLoop apart from the rest of the competition. With six college campuses involved, we’re diverse not only in terms of each team member’s background, but also in terms of their skills and interests (our team consists of a variety of majors ranging from business and computer science to architecture).
How and why did you get involved with this project?
Nick approached me about running OpenLoop’s business team back in August. Being a huge Elon Musk fan, I was immediately intrigued by the first mention of the Hyperloop, and after talking to him more about this unique opportunity to bring the engineering talent of six college campuses together, I realized our goal was within reach. The implications of what this technology will do for the world was also a major motivating factor in my decision. Every industry we can think of will be impacted by the Hyperloop – shipping and transportation are the obvious ones our minds jump to, but when we achieve mobility at the magnitude enabled by Musk’s concept, it becomes clear that even the most niched downstream markets will be revolutionized. For example, imagine what will happen to the sports industry when what used to be a several hours long trip to Yankee Stadium for out-of-state individuals becomes a sub-30 minute ride on the Hyperloop, or imagine what will happen to companies’ recruitment practices when employees can easily commute hundreds of miles to their offices. These considerations made the project more compelling. At the same time, the disparity between school and the real world can be quite large, and I saw OpenLoop as a way to make up for that. Nick and I began recruiting the rest of the team after that initial meeting, and I’ve been on board ever since.
Are there any courses you’ve taken at Cornell that have been particularly helpful in your work with Open Loop?
I would say Introduction to Business Management and Organization with Pedro Perez because the class follows a case study format that forces you to approach business problems from the perspective of various stakeholders. Professor Perez does a great job of bringing real world situations into the classroom, and my experiences on OpenLoop have definitely helped me to synthesize the course’s content. I’ve also taken a number of computer science courses and am following the Physics curriculum, which has been particularly useful in the context of OpenLoop because it allows me to bridge the gap between our team’s engineering and non-engineering components.
What do you think is different about managing a team built around innovation of this scale relative to managing a team for a normal company?
It really has to do with our organizational structure and the way we grew OpenLoop into what it is today. Your typical company starts as a small number of founders working to solve a problem and then grows organically at a rate that correlates with the success of its current operations. On the other hand, OpenLoop hit the ground running with over 100 team members within a couple weeks of our inception, and as a result, our team dynamic developed in a very unconventional way. That being said, we’ve been able to build a strong culture around each member and we’re making consistent progress towards a finalized Hyperloop pod design for the January deadline.
Any advice you have for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to innovate like you?
I think it’s relevant to bring up an Elon Musk quote here. When asked why he bet all of his money on the success of SpaceX after three consecutive failed rocket launches, Musk responded, “If something is important enough you should try, even if the probable outcome is failure.” I think this is good advice for aspiring entrepreneurs because it reminds us to take risks, and it addresses the tension between doing what you’re told to do and doing what you know you should do, which all college students face when thinking about their future careers.