Management change is crucial for Virgin Hyperloop One

11 November 2018
Firm aims to transition from being a technology to a mass transport company

DP World group chairman and CEO Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem has been named the new chairman of US-based Virgin Hyperloop One, one of the startups investing in the hyper-fast land transport technology.

Bin Sulayem takes over the role from UK billionaire Richard Branson, who announced he was stepping down from his role in mid-October, days after his decision to pull out of the planned Virgin Hyperloop One project in Saudi Arabia. He cited concerns over the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

DP World is the largest shareholder in Virgin Hyperloop One, whose name change followed an undisclosed investment by the British billionaire last year. As such, the election of Bin Sulayem as new chairman does not come as a surprise.

Following Branson’s departure, Jay Walder, a former Transport for London (TfL) executive, has been brought in to replace tech veteran Rob Lloyd, who joined Hyperloop One as CEO in 2015.

The appointment of Walder appears to fit comfortably with the company’s transition from a pure technology firm into a mass transport company – a concept it was previously unwilling to embrace. Walder has previously led some of the world’s most complex urban rail schemes including New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, MTR Corporation in Hong Kong, and TfL.

"As we transition from a technology startup to a mass transportation company, the strategy needs to focus on project commercialisation, starting in India,” Virgin Hyperloop One spokesperson Ryan Kelly said in a statement.

MEED understands the firm has been struggling financially, and will need another round of funding until it closes its first public contract and starts building a section of what will be the first Hyperloop commercial route linking Mumbai and Pune in India.

In addition to Lloyd, other executives have been let go, including chief engineer Rob Ferber, and head of systems engineering Anita Sengupta. Axel Martinez, the company’s chief financial officer, is expected to be leaving within weeks as well.

The firm’s HR chief Ramiro Medina, engineering vice president Carl Jenkins, and software head Matt Jones have also left the firm.

Virgin Hyperloop One also decided to shut down its fabrication centre Metalworks in Nevada, though DevLoop will continue to operate at its main test site.

Kelly has been quick to point out they just received a new round of funding from current investors, with the goal of breaking ground on the company’s first project in India in the first half of 2019. He also said that the departure of key former employees aligns with the firm’s new strategy.

Given DP World’s resources, it is likely the firm will survive the departure of Branson and other key executives.

It could be said that Branson’s decision to pull out of Saudi Arabia and leave the company has not helped Virgin Hyperloop One’s quest to close its first public sector contract, and to prove once for all that the technology works.

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