Deeptech/Interview/

The Hyperloop that never was

Pipenet, a magnet-powered funnel designed to transport goods at thousands of kilometres an hour, was a precursor to Elon Musk's Hyperloop. Why did it never take off?

By Ben Munster in Rome

Closed lock
Member
Credit: Professor Franco Cotana, Pipenet

The Pipenet prototype hidden behind a lab at the end of a muddy footpath, in the shadow of a declining steel mill in central Italy, is a monument to how Europe struggles to commercialise cutting-edge technologies. 

Moss-covered and sprouting vines, it is 100m long and 1.25m thick, a matte, polythene-composite tube that disappears into nearby woods, enclosed at one end in an old wooden shack. It looks big enough for an adult to crawl through.

“But I wouldn’t recommend going inside,” its inventor, Professor Franco Cotana, tells Sifted.

The Pipenet was once the largest working prototype of its kind, a magnet-powered funnel designed to transport goods at thousands of kilometres an hour, faster than any train, car or plane. Though Cotana, a professor at the University of Perugia, first patented it in 2000, there is another project in the US which is similar, only leagues more successful. That project is Elon Musk’s Hyperloop.

Cotana says he believes Musk copied his idea. “The only major difference was the diameter of the tube,” he said. “It was a masterful copy.” 

Copy might be a bit strong. Ideas similar to the hyperloop have been around in Europe for 200 years. In 1799, inventor George Medhurst proposed an idea to move goods through cast-iron pipes using air pressure. In the 19th century, people were transported in pneumatic railways and goods through tubes. Through the 20th century, there were proposals using magnetic levitation to help super fast travel, including one by MIT engineers in the 1990s.

So when Cotana says that the Hyperloop idea laid out by Musk in an initial white paper in 2013 (and subsequently made open source so that anyone can develop the idea) is a copy of his own, it’s not like there were no other sources for Musk’s team to draw inspiration from.

But true or not (Musk did not respond to a request for comment), none of this really matters. It was not Musk that held back the Pipenet, which today sits disassembled, its capsules and the Maglev technology on which it runs squirrelled 100km away in a sealed-off lab in the University of Perugia. Development on Pipenet has barely budged for 15 years, long before Musk came out with the Hyperloop. 

The issue, says Cotana, is more of a symptom of the Italian approach to R&D and investor reticence than competition among entrepreneurs, and the plight of the Pipenet is a familiar story across the country.  While Italian scientific research is in many areas world-class, there are too many pioneering, worthy projects like Cotana’s that are let down by a paucity in public and private funding that slows development to a crawl and makes it difficult to retain patents. 

“Many great technologies developed at universities simply remain at those universities — they become very big but are not applied to reality, are not applied to the market,” said Anna Impedovo, the COO of ISAAC, a company building anti-earthquake devices founded at Milan Polytechnic, one of Italy’s largest research centres. Compared with the rest of Europe, for instance, funding in Italian deeptech is precipitously low. 

A European and Italian problem

In fact, this is a problem across all of Europe — one policymakers across the continent are desperately looking for ways to solve. Sure, engineering and maths education at Ecole Polytechnique in France, ETH Zurich in Switzerland, or Cambridge in the UK compete with offerings from MIT or Stanford in the US at the top of global rankings. But the US has proved far more effective in taking those ideas out of the lab and turning them into companies, and the country is able to generate considerably more funding for deeptech projects. 

But even as European countries go, in Italy it’s particularly bad. The country comes 10th in Europe when it comes to private capital investments, and despite hosting top universities such as Perugia and Sapienza, funding in R&D for the last two decades has paled in comparison with the majority of other European countries, with the exception of Lithuania, Greece and Hungary. Lorenzo Fioramonte, a former education minister and a professor of political economy at the University of Pretoria, said this underinvestment began in the late 90s as a result of austerity and privatisations overseen by Silvio Berlusconi and his successors. 

“It’s a myopic approach,” said Fioramonti, who very publicly resigned from his ministerial role in 2019 over, yes, a lack of university funding.

Physical internet

The story of Pipenet is particularly illustrative of Italy’s poor track record on deeptech, and is one of endless delay and disappointment. It has been 18 years since Cotana, with his colleague Federico Rossi, began publicising the idea for Pipenet, which works by suspending cylindrical capsules in long, vacuum tubes lined with powerful ‘Maglev’ magnets, and firing them forward at speeds of up to 2,000kph via the alternating magnetic fields produced thereof. 

It takes an hour to get to Terni from Perugia by car, for instance, but Cotana estimates it would take only eight minutes via Pipenet. Key to the concept is that the currents produced by the Maglev transmit energy that feeds back into the system, making it almost 80% energy-efficient.  

Pipenet works like “surfing,” said Cotana, who at 63 years old, stocky with a shock of grey hair, is still irrepressible and almost dancing through his labs in Terni and Perugia. “Imagine you are on top of a wave,” he explained. “When your weight increases, you go down and the wave gives you more energy. If your weight is low, you stay on top of the wave and your energy consumption is very low.” 

“I’m from the future”

Likewise, Maglev strips at the bottom of each Pipenet capsule, and along the bottom of each tube, produce fields whose rise and fall sends the capsule forward. That effect is readily visible at Cotana’s lab in Perugia, where the Maglev is affixed to a shorter prototype, only two metres. Inside the tube a capsule gently rolls back and forth carrying a basket of plastic fruits, and if you look closely you can see the capsule is levitating, afloat by millimetres above the tube’s base. 

The Pipenet is no pipe dream; Cotana has been building on and developing this vision for years, and is a member of a key government lobby group. That vision goes well beyond mere pipes: He dreams of a “physical internet” of near-instantly deliverable goods, and in his laboratories are large schematics for Pipenet “stations” integrated with existing ones, into which microchipped goods would be directed via a complex network of sensors and programmed computers.

Elsewhere in the lab sits a large, multi-propellered drone capable of transporting from these Pipenet stations goods weighing up to 6kg. In Cotana’s telling, an army of drone-carers would have to stand ready at all times with large nets in case the things fall and break. On another table is a row of computer-controlled sniffer-machines capable of detecting drugs, or explosives, in air released from unsealed capsules. “I’m from the future,” Cotana grinned. He told the Italian TV network RAI the same thing almost two decades ago. 

“Nobody cared. They were only interested in oil and petrol.” 

But year after year, the Italian government has dithered, supplying him with very little financing. Originally he was provided €300k for the Terni prototype, bolstered by an additional €200k from the EU. Even that was threadbare, he said, but he had to make do with it, and the prototype was completed within a few months, in 2005. He used materials from the neighbouring mill.

The government provided very little else after that point, effectively leaving him to fend for himself. Annoyingly for Cotana, the prototype is at “technology readiness 7,” a designation which means it is two “levels” from being market-ready. With €150m more Cotana believes it would take only three years to build a larger prototype demonstrating Pipenet’s effectiveness to investors, but he’s been waiting to begin this three-year project for many years more. “Nobody cared,” said Cotana. “They were only interested in oil and petrol.” 

Patents 

In 2013, Cotana was disappointed further to read a white paper by one Elon Musk, outlining a model for a similar sounding project that would use the same Maglev technology to power entire trains, not just goods. Musk made Hyperloop open source and it is now a global phenomenon, worked on by countless researchers. 

Cotana thought his idea had been copied, but was helpless to do anything. He had no grounds for a legal case against Musk, having never obtained the funding to get a US patent, which would have cost him at least €20k, he said. A legal letter sent to Hyperloop’s Italian branch, in which Cotana suggested that Hyperloop collaborate with him, or at least give him some credit, went unanswered. Whether or not Musk did borrow from his ideas, it all speaks to the challenge faced by Italian researchers.

 “I’m like Antonio Meucci!” Cotana joked, referring to the Italian inventor of the telephone whose work was overshadowed by the Scotsman Alexander Graham Bell. 

There are differences between the two projects, though. Hyperloops allow movement in only one direction, and are theoretically wider to accommodate trains. The Hyperloop concept has also been tested on a larger scale, first in 2017 with a 500m pipe in the Nevada desert, and later with humans. It has received more funding, too, with Virgin Hyperloop pulling in $485m while Cotana worked on a tight budget. Nevertheless, leaked documents suggest Hyperloop would also cost up to $75m per kilometre, whereas Cotana estimates he could build 25km of Pipenet for $181m. 

That said, the projects aren’t in direct competition, and are conceivably complimentary, though Cotana argues that Pipenet is much faster, clocking in at up to 2,000kph compared to Hyperloop’s mere 1,078kpm (and 387kph when tested). He added that the influence of the US Hyperloop helped lend some credibility to his own idea. “The Italian government, they see Hyperloop, and they say, ‘That idea is impossible to realise, but yours is cheaper and has a low impact.’” 

Vulnerabilities

Andrea Alunni, the author of the book Innovation Finance and Technology Transfer, says that the vulnerability of Italian researchers to appropriation is down to an absence of funding in “technology transfer,” the process by which R&D projects are commercialised. 

In an interview, he explained that in-house tech transfer offices at universities are supposed to handle patenting and broker deals with private investors, but in Italy they suffer a severe lack of funding. He said many researchers don’t bother patenting their work at all, preferring the prestige of a published paper over a commercially viable product. After all, there is precious little financial incentive to produce anything beyond a paper.

Further, he said that patents become wildly expensive after the first few years, meaning without extra funding beyond the research level the patents are either abandoned or sold off at a low price to private investors. 

“Tech transfer works only if technology goes through IP protection”

As a result, Italian universities have produced only a few hundred patents between them, according to unofficial research compiled by Alunni. He explained that the official numbers aren’t reported, or are otherwise muddied to include patents that are pending, midway through the application process, or abandoned. “The University of Oxford alone has more patents than the whole of Italian universities together,” he said.

“Tech transfer works only if technology goes through IP protection,” he continued. “Otherwise, the mortality rate of these initiatives is extremely high. Often they’re good on paper and good in the lab, but they cannot progress simply by virtue of that, and if they publish a concept [without a patent] some innovation centre in the world will develop a prototype on it — and in two years sell it back to you at a premium.” 

Improving 

Nevertheless, Cotana thinks the Italian government has begun taking deeptech seriously.

“The ministry is observing our project,” he said on a recent afternoon, referring to the Ministry of Ecological Transition, formerly the Ministry of Transport. He thinks he finally has a shot at getting that money to build the larger, 25km prototype of the Pipenet that would take it to technology readiness 9, which means market ready. Depending on the investor he hopes to build it either in Lombardy, Umbria or Basilicata, in the Italian south. 

Others have reported similar signs of improvement. ISAAC, the earthquake company, which has its own lab at Milan Polytechnic, has secured €570k in pre-seed funding from VCs. It is approaching market-readiness, and has a good shot at commercialisation. 

Phononic Vibes, another startup spun out of Milan Polytechnic, has designed a way to transform everyday materials into lightweight, soundproof “metamaterials” at a low cost. The company has been the recipient of a wave of new funds set up over the course of the past few years, especially in the wake of the pandemic. Some years ago, for instance, €550k came from Poli360, a €69m joint venture between Milan Polytechnic and the large Italian venture firm 360 Capital. Another €2.3m came in more recently from 360 and Eureka Venture, a new Italian deeptech fund. Significantly, both of these funds were backed by Cassa Depositi e Prestiti, the Italian government lender, showing the pace at which public investment is increasing. 

“Tech transfer funds are starting now to deploy real money.”

“It’s quite good to have a deeptech company in Italy at this time,” said Luca D’Alessandro, Phononic Vibes’s CEO. “Tech transfer funds are starting now to deploy real money.”

There is also hope that a renewed focus on green technology set into motion by Italy’s new, technocratic premier, Mario Draghi, will produce a wave of R&D funding and bring projects like Pipenet to completion. Around €220bn is expected to arrive from the EU Recovery Fund over the next six years, 40% of which will be allocated to green projects, and 25% to digitalisation. Roughly €31.4bn will go directly towards modernising the country’s transport infrastructure. 

That said, the money due from that fund still pales in comparison to the €160bn lost to Covid-19, and much of it will likely arrive in the form of tax incentives rather than grants. There have also been concerns that too little has been allotted to green investment, and Fioramonti, the former minister, criticised the priority given to “glamorous” projects that make headlines but redirect funds from local infrastructure. For instance, while in the Italian south many trains still use coal and oil, 80% of the transportation budget from the Recovery Fund will focus on high-speed trains, of which Italy already has among the fastest in Europe. 

“The Italian government doesn’t always put money where real transformation is,” said Fioramonti. “We invest in things that don’t have a systemic impact.” 

Could Pipenet be one of those glamorous projects? Perhaps. But for Cotana, it’s a necessity born of climate change and a changing world. He has spent his entire life working on this vision, he said, and elements of it have already trickled out into reality. 

Last week, by way of example, on a quiet platform at Perugia’s marbled central station, he pointed out two rust-red guideways suspended 10m off the ground. They were arteries of the MiniMetro, an automated train network that actually saw the light of day. It was completed in 2009, is unique to Perugia, and is widely used. 

“I helped build that, too,” Cotana said, raising his phone hurriedly to capture a photo as two gleaming white pods emerged from either direction and, whirring gently, formed a brief eclipse against the fading sky. 

Ben Munster is based in Rome and writes about Italian tech and startups for Sifted. He tweets at @Ben_Munster

An earlier version of this story said that Andrea Alunni is program director of technology transfer at the University of Oxford. He in fact left Oxford in 2016 and was head of new venture support and funding at Oxford University Innovation.

Join the conversation

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of