The proposed Mumbai-Pune Hyperloop project will put India at the cutting edge of high-tech transportation, Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Atlantic group, told CNBC-TV18 in an exclusive interview.
The proposed Mumbai-Pune Hyperloop project will put India at the cutting edge of high-tech transportation, said Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Atlantic group.
Branson, who was in Mumbai to announce the launch of a Mumbai-London direct flight by Virgin Atlantic, said he would meet Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to talk about the venture.
“Virgin Hyperloop is something very dear to my heart. It will cut the journey time for people travelling to and from places down dramatically. One of the busiest routes in the world is Mumbai-Pune. So I am meeting the chief minister to talk about that route and see whether we can build Virgin Hyperloop alongside the main motorway so that people can travel between Pune and Mumbai in 20 minutes to half an hour rather than in 4 to 5 hours,” he told CNBC-TV18 in an exclusive interview.
Commenting on the government’s plan to privatise Air India, the Virgin Atlantic founder said he would look into it. “Hats off to the government for looking at that. I will be happy to have a look at it anyway and find out more,” he stated.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
Let me start by asking you about your outlook for India? You are here to see the progress as far as Hyperloop is concerned, you are meeting with the government of Maharashtra, how confident do you feel about getting this project up and running? This is your passion currently.
I was delighted obviously to fly on the new Virgin Atlantic flight to Mumbai. We are flying to Mumbai, and we are now going double-daily to Delhi from London, and so now I can afford to get here on our planes, we are going to have to turn to other business. Virgin Hyperloop is something very dear to my heart. It will cut the journey time for people travelling to and from places down dramatically. One of the busiest routes in the world is Mumbai-Pune, so I am meeting the chief minister to talk about that route and see whether we can build Virgin Hyperloop alongside the main motorway so that people can travel between Pune and Mumbai in 20 minutes to half an hour rather than in 4 to 5 hours.
I would imagine that the question that you are going to be asked is where is the money going to come from and do you expect the government to fund this because that will then be the big speed breaker and the big deterrent.
We have no need for government money. It will be easy for the private sector to fund this and it will take a lot of burden off the roads, a lot of deaths off the road. Mumbai-Pune is one of the bloodiest roads in the world to travel on. I think for people to get into the pod, to be in this pod on electromagnetic clean energy from Pune to Mumbai at 500 odd miles an hour will be something which will be incredibly exciting and it will actually put India at the cutting edge of transportation.
Assuming that you get all the regulatory approvals and the support from the government to get this project off the ground, how long will it take to get this going and what would you say are the benefits for Hyperloop versus a highspeed rail network, for instance?
The length of time it will take, if we can get permission quickly, we can get the first 20 miles of track built and we can finish the testing on a longer track. As far as the benefits against the highspeed rail line are concerned, it is cheaper to do, and therefore the tickets should be cheaper. It is faster than the
highspeed railway line and it is a lot safer. If you are in a pod in a tube, there is almost nothing that can go wrong compared to the highspeed rail line.
This is a project that you hope will get off the ground, but let us talk a little bit about aviation because this has been a longstanding ambition of yours to fly and connect India with the rest of the world. You took off the Mumbai-London flight because it was not viable, you brought it back on to the table. What do you make of the Indian aviation market, we have seen the demise of another airline, Jet Airways, and I would imagine that has opened up an opportunity for Virgin, but how do you read the Indian aviation market today? What do you make of it?
India is booming basically. There has been 25 percent growth since the last time we were flying to Mumbai. There has been a lot of lost capacity on the routes. So it is the perfect time for Virgin Atlantic to come into Mumbai. Delhi, we are going double-daily because of the amount of demand between India and the UK and also on to America. We have our partnership with Delta. We have our new partnership with KLM and Air France, so we can fly people into Europe. Indians by and large love to come to London before they go on to the rest of Europe or America.
What do you believe in your experience of running an airline and not just in one part of the world but in different parts of the world, what do you believe is the fix that is needed here in India especially from a policy perspective. I mean the Indian aviation companies cry about high taxes and they believe that the government should address that, but outside of that, there are many mistakes that airlines themselves have made over the last few years which have probably got them to the past that they are at today. You have had your own sort of issues on account of 26/11 your own difficult times with the aviation business, what would you say are the fixes that are needed?
You just have to create the best airline in the world, in anything that anybody does they have got to be the best. The reason Virgin Atlantic starting with one second-hand 747 has survived for 35 years is that people love it and people will go out of their way to travel on it. But if you are an average airline, you are not going to survive, unless you are government-run, and then stay average generally. I am afraid Air India is an example of an airline that I suspect the government should have just privatised; governments are not good at running things. They have got a big enough problem just running a country, let alone trying to run companies.
You talked about Air India, the privatisation process is underway, and the government is keen to get it done. It has been a difficult one to get done, would this be of any interest to you at all? There was a lot of speculation in the past that you would look at coming into India if the foreign direct investment cap were liberalised further, does this interest you at all today?
It is terrible, I did not even know that Air India was being privatised, but hats off to the government for looking at that. I will be happy to have a look at it anyway and find out more. Whether it is going to be privatised as a whole or whether it should be broken up or whatever I do not know, but yes, we are delighted to have a look.
Let us talk about Virgin Galactic because that, of course, is the big bet at this point in time, an audacious bet that you have decided to make, 2020 is going to be the big year?
Yes. 2019 was a pretty good year for Virgin Galactic. In that, we have got five of our brave test pilots into space. In 2020, I hope to be going to space and we hope to start bringing other people to space. And then we have Virgin Orbit, which will in 2020 start putting rockets into orbit and dropping off satellites and that is going to be very important for back here on earth and connecting to billions of people that are not connected.
Do you feel confident about the first half of 2020 to make that big leap?
I looked in my diary today - there is a lot going on in the first half of 2020 but it is going to be fun. We have got a cruise line coming out of Geneva where it is being built, the first cruise ship and it does a trip around the UK before going to New York and Boston and down to Miami to start taking people into the Caribbean. So whether it starts or going to open a new Virgin hotel or going to the Mahali desert or space or whatever. So it is exciting.
On Galactic specifically, the response has been very positive, I believe you have stopped taking bookings for now.
We have pencilled people’s names.
So that you can erase them off.
No, hopefully so we can build enough spaceships to satisfy everybody.
But speaking of building spaceships and the idea behind what you are hoping to do with Virgin Galactic is to make space travel more accessible, which means you need to bring cost down. Would that perhaps open up the window for a partnership, a collaboration with an organisation like ISRO, which has done fabulous stuff with bringing cost down and putting satellites into orbit?
I am always happy to talk to other people and partnerships often make a lot of sense. We have never met each other and would love an introduction. At the moment we are both doing our own thing and we will have to decide whether it is better to unite or do it solo.
Speaking of collaboration, is there ever going to be the possibility of collaborating with the other two who are trying to capture this space travel space, Musk, Bezos, Branson could that partnership fructify at some point?
There is always a possibility.
You don’t need an introduction there.
No, I know both of them and they are both geniuses. The person who is the closest to what we are doing is Jeff Bezos and if there was to be any collaboration, that would make the most logical sense but at the moment, we are both doing our own things, we are both using the technology to prove that we can deliver and one day, you never know, it might make sense to see one plus one equals three.
While we are talking about exploring space, there are plenty of challenges here that we have to deal with. What do you make of the move towards governments looking more inwards, a move against globalisation, against global trade and how does that impact someone like you and your businesses?
We can adapt but I think it is very sad. I think the more world can be one world the better it is for everybody. The more the people inter-marry the better it is for everybody. The more we can break down the barriers, the better it is. So, I think business people and non-business people, we have got to fight for stopping putting up walls and try to embrace people on a global basis.
Are politicians today listening?
I am afraid there are some politicians who are just whipping up the worst attributes of individuals and that is sad. If you take immigration in the UK, Britain has benefited enormously from people in Europe coming and helping in the UK and it is sad to see all those people leaving and going back to Europe. I hope the next generation of politicians will be more embracing but they also need to not lie to the public and they need to educate the public better than they have done in the past.
Speaking of leaving Europe, what will the implications be eventually as and when we do see the Brexit deal going through?
Today, we are obviously talking about the British elections, so it is impossible to say exactly what is going to happen. However, a soft Brexit will be painful for Britain and Europe but not anywhere near as painful as a hard Brexit. So, we will lose maybe half the GDP that we would have lost with a hard Brexit. There are lots of other negatives for young people, they won’t be able to live or work in 28 other countries, they will be stuck to the UK. I think we will see Britain break up – Scotland will break away, Northern Island could break away, Wales could break away. So, Great Britain could become little England as a result.
From where you sit today and we talked about some of the challenges to global trade and globalisation, what worries you the most about some of the things that we are having to cope with and some of the things we are having to deal with – climate change, of course, is a big issue. There are some leaders in the world who believe it is a hoax and it is not even true. However, for someone like yourself, you are putting your time, your resources, your money behind something that you believe needs to be addressed today, do you see that or do you fear that there has been a setback on the movement?
The only people in the world that have any doubts about climate change are based in America and the only leader in the world who has any doubts about climate change is based in America and it makes me want to weep. You have got scientists incredibly clear that the carbon we are putting up is creating this blanket around the earth and this blanket is getting thicker and thicker and the thicker it gets the more the world is going to heat up and ultimately it is going to be disaster for the world and so we have to address it. We have to address it in a way that is going to be least painful to the public, least painful for companies and we have an idea which we are trying to get governments to adopt which I think could get on top of climate change.
Some of the ideas that governments have experimented with, and the carbon tax is one of them, haven't really worked. You don’t believe that is the way forward as well because it causes pain and consumers don’t like it and hence governments pulled back. What then is the best way to address this?
Carbon tax pushes prices up and is painful for consumers and companies and therefore governments. Our approach is much simpler and that is each company works out how much carbon it is emitting and they have to invest a percentage of that in clean energy. If every company invested a percentage of their carbon output in clean energy, we would have trillions going into clean energy revolution which would then drive the prices of energy down which would benefit the public but the companies would be able to get their money back from their investments in clean energy, so they would be happy and ultimately governments will be happy because we get on top of climate change by fuel prices coming down and staying down forever because with clean energy they will have to go down.
Do you think that this should be something that should be left to companies to decide for themselves or do you believe that this should be mandated as per law and regulation?
I personally think that it should be regulated. I think that if you leave it to companies, they will always find an excuse not to do it unless it is regulated. We have got a B team in Australia, they are going to the Australian government, when a new government comes in power in Britain we will go to them, we will even go to the American government because this does not contradict their beliefs. I think they will see this hopefully as a way of creating clean energy revolution which can only benefit America.
Linked to climate change but a larger issue is the issue of corporate responsibility and I think post the 2008 financial crisis, there have been once again questions raised about the role and the relevance of capitalism as we know it today. You are a big believer in giving back, whether it is through what you do with your business or through the philanthropic route. Do you believe that capitalism which for several decades has been the best remedy to address some of the challenges, poverty alleviation and so on and so forth, is perhaps today less relevant in addressing some of these issues?
No, the entrepreneurs are the people who are improving people’s lives all over the world. But if you are lucky enough to make enormous money out of being an entrepreneur, then you have enormous responsibility to use that money to either create more jobs or to get in there and sort out the problems of the world. What we do not need is entrepreneurs passing on billions and billions to their children and their grandchildren; that money should be used in a way to improve the world.
How are you going about it? You have two children, they are going to be in your own words figureheads taking your legacy forward for the Virgin Group, but how are you going about the fact that you give back to society what you have earned from it?
Fortunately, my own children hopefully have been well brought up and they get far more satisfaction seeing the money spent in helping other people’s lives than getting a second house, getting a yacht, getting more jewellery, or whatever which are unnecessary things. So, it is very important that you bring up your children to have the right balance and obviously I will make sure that my children get good education and that they have got the money if they are ill or unwell, and maybe even make sure grandchildren have that, but that still leaves a lot of money to be spent on tackling some of the problems of the world.
Which are the problems that you want to address more meaningfully? You have been working on healthcare and all kinds of other innovations to address some of these deficits and gaps, but what are you most passionate and excited about today?
I am an entrepreneur and I cannot resist a challenge and now we are a serial entrepreneur as far as trying to sort out some of the problems of the world. So, we have got the elders trying to deal with conflict issues, we have got the Ocean Elders and Ocean Unite that are trying to get the world to protect 30 percent of the oceans by 2030, to try to protect sharks from the wholesale slaughter for shark fins, and we are working on drug reform. We are trying to get governments to treat drugs as a health problem, not a criminal problem and help people who have drug issues. Obviously climate change is a big issue that we are spending a lot of time and energy on and trying to show governments different types of approach.
What about encouraging more startups to address some of these issues and I do not know if you are working with any startups from India, but I believe that at Necker there are many young startups who find guidance and mentorship with you. So, are you actively going to engage perhaps with startups here in India? Is that something that you would consider?
I think purpose-driven startups are something which we are very involved with. There is a wonderful fund called the RICE Fund that we helped set up which just invests in purpose-driven companies. For instance, in India they have invested in a company to try to help all the people, the one or two cows producing milk, creating a sort of collective of all these people, making their distribution easier and it has worked very well.
In England, we have something called Virgin StartUp Loans which we work with the government on and we have 5,000 young people where we give out loans and we have fine mentors for them and that is something we could very seriously consider for India.
You have travelled all parts of the world and you continue to do that. How much time you are spending on a plane these days?
Fortunately, we have an airline so I can now afford to travel around the world, but I suspect I spend half of my year on planes. But the great thing is when I come to a city and I have just done a tour where we raised a lot of money for our foundation, this afternoon I can see the new ministers from Mumbai to talk about Hyperloop. Yesterday, we did the inaugural flight on Virgin Atlantic. So, I can mix in, in one trip a number of different challenges.
How is Richard Branson different at 70? What are your dreams at 70? You have taken on incumbents across different sectors. What is the motivation today for you and how is it different from when you started?
It is the same. Honestly, it is strange, I do not feel older than I felt when I was 20. That is because I work out, I kitesurf, I climb mountains, ride bicycles, and so on. So, I feel like a 20-year-old. I think as long as you look after yourself and you can feel really fit and healthy, you can continue to achieve what you did as a 20-year-old. I still love creating things, I still love using my entrepreneurial skills to try to tackle problems, and I play hard as well. So, I definitely do not want to waste the unique position I find myself in.
Given the unique position that you find yourself in, is there any sector, any dream, any aspiration that remains unfulfilled that you would like to take forward?
Are you finally done?
We have covered maybe over 100 different areas in my life and so I think if there was something that I had a real urge to do, then I would have done it. But I think more than 50 percent of my time is spent on tackling issues and working on not-for-profit things and in that area, there are always new challenges. We have a wonderful group of people who come to Necker once a year called Audacious Ideas and we work out every year what are the six biggest things in the world that need fixing and then we get the wealthiest people in the world to come to Necker and then we raise a lot of money and we go out and try to fix those things. So, every year, maybe it is sorting out blindness in Africa and trying to get rid of it altogether or lots of wonderful different things. So, that has become a bit of a passion.
What is getting you out of bed and since you do not go to office, what is keeping you going every morning?
I think it is just the wonderful variety of life, it is learning every day, it is meeting new people, it is challenging myself, it is challenging the people around me, and as of the day after tomorrow, it is going to be two weeks of playing with five little grandkids and Christmas time.
First Published: IST