Richard Branson steps down as chairman of Virgin Hyperloop citing lack of time

 Photo: Virgin Hyperloop One
Photo: Virgin Hyperloop One

Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, has reportedly stepped down from being the chairman of Virgin Hyperloop One, citing that the company requires a “more hands-on chair,” who can focus all his energy into the company’s growth and future possibilities. “It will be difficult for me to fulfill that commitment as I already devote significant time to my philanthropic ventures and the many business within the Virgin Group,” he said.

Hyperloop is a recently conceived transportation technology that allows the movement of passengers and freight in a specially designed pod that moves nearly at the speed of sound in a partially vacuumed tube. The concept was first publicly described by Elon Musk in 2012, as an alternative to the high-speed train corridor connecting Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

Hyperloop One, a company that works on the technology of hyperloop, was founded in 2014 and was later rebranded in 2017 to be called “Virgin Hyperloop One” after the Virgin Group bought a major share in the company, following which Branson joined its board of directors. Branson was appointed the chairman in December 2017, after the company raised $50 million in its Series C funding round.

Since then, the company has embarked on a series of partnerships in laying down experimental test tracks and commercial pilot programmes across the world. It includes two sites in India, with the company signing an agreement for a hyperloop route in the Indian state of Maharashtra, coursing between its financial capital Mumbai and Pune. The high-capacity passenger and cargo hyperloop route is envisioned to support 150 million passenger trips annually, helping reduce travel time by more than 90 million hours.

A major announcement came in April this year, about Virgin Hyperloop and its biggest investor DP World, joining hands in creating DP World Cargospeed – a futuristic freight corridor enabled by hyperloop, helping haul cargo more efficiently and much faster than conventional means. Rob Lloyd, the CEO of Virgin Hyperloop One had remarked that this solution would reduce the need for warehousing space by 25%, as supply chains could get tighter and just-in-time.

Last week, the company published the results of a feasibility study on the establishment of a hyperloop system in the U.S., in a report submitted by Black & Veatch, a global infrastructure solutions company. The report analyzed a potential route passing through the I-70 corridor, a highway crossing through Missouri, taking into account the safety and sustainability of the system and also the socio-economic impact of such an infrastructure in the region. The results were telling – a possible reduction of time spent on the road which would add up to $410 million every year, and a reduction in accidents which would help save $91 million of public money.

All this aside, the company has been mired with some recent controversies surrounding its suspension of discussions on a $1 billion investment from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, over misgivings with Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder inside its consulate in Turkey. Branson had also suspended two Saudi tourism projects around the Red Sea, that was to be constructed under his purview citing the obscurity surrounding the reasons for Khashoggi’s death.

This has led to Saudi Arabia pulling out of a planned feasibility study with Virgin Hyperloop One in the country. The deal was supposed to go through at the Future Investment Initiative conference that is being held in Riyadh this week. CEO Lloyd, who was supposed to attend the conference has also dropped it. Then again, the official statement from the company stated that it has not received any confirmation on the deal hold up, and said there was a possibility of the partnership going forward in the future, despite the current hiccups.

In the light of Branson stepping down, DP World has confirmed that it would be looking for a new chairman to fill his shoes at the company. As of now, the company has not revealed the names of the people it is considering for the job.