DELFT, Netherlands -- Innovation can be aspirational, inspiring and, at the very least, good fodder for casual conversation.
But we avoid talking about what the process of invention means for the vast majority of entrepreneurs: a massive suck on resources. Dollars and hours spent working on the next big thing tend to seem less justifiable if your big idea doesn't pan out.
Take the Hyperloop, Tesla CEO Elon Musk's bold vision to commute between cities. The concept involves putting people in a capsule floating on a thin layer of air -- like the puck on an air hockey table -- and shooting them down a tube at supersonic speed. To skeptics, the Hyperloop is nothing more than a pipe dream, a futuristic vision as unattainable as the network of blimps that looked like the future of long-distance travel in the early 20th century.
But, as is the case with many of Musk's ideas, true believers are out there. At Delft University of Technology, a team of students spends a full year working on a prototype Hyperloop pod for SpaceX's annual student competition in Los Angeles. In January, Delft's pod won an award in the competition, hitting a speed of around 55 mph. The team even improved on Musk's original Hyperloop concept, installing electromagnetic braking on its pod. Some members of the winning team have moved on to try to commercialize the technology through an organization called Hardt Hyperloop.
For the students at Delft, this opportunity comes at a cost. Not only must they dedicate a year to the project, they get no course credit for it, have no faculty guidance and still have to pay tuition at the university despite not being enrolled in any courses.
It's hard not to look at this as a passion project taken to the next level. But even if the Hyperloop doesn't pan out as Musk, or these students, envision, there's still considerable benefit to the effort. For one, there's the resume builder and networking opportunities for students. But from a broader perspective, there are ancillary benefits to spur innovation in other sectors. That's why magnetic technology developed for high-speed transit can also be used to create a cableless elevator.
Doubters would do well to have faith in seemingly pointless innovation. From the vantage point of today, it may have real costs and take unexpected turns, but the benefits aren't always immediately clear.
— Shiraz Ahmed