Inventing the future
by: Jason Halstead
A local tech innovator who made his mark on the global ICT and networking scene came home to tell his story.
Robert Lloyd, the former Virgin Hyperloop One CEO and former President of Cisco, took to the stage at the Information and Communication Technologies Association of Manitoba’s The Innovators: Inventing the Future event on April 25, 2019 at the RBC Convention Centre Winnipeg for a conversation in front of 300 attendees with Beverly Thomson, the former host of CTV’s Canada AM and a current CTV news anchor.
Lloyd may live in Silicon Valley, but he’ll always be a Winnipegger.
“I went to the University of Manitoba and as I’ve travelled around the world no one’s ever asked me if I went to Stanford,” Lloyd said. “It doesn’t matter. As a matter of fact, if you can make things work in Winnipeg – you’ve all heard this line — you can make it anywhere, right? It’s a good place to learn.”
Lloyd caught the entrepreneurial bug during his second-year at the University Manitoba after taking a course on direct mail marketing and setting up Regal Painting and Decorating with a couple hockey buddies. Lloyd had his little brother drop off flyers in the most expensive parts of the city.
“I told my mom there might be a few phone calls,” he said.
Lloyd and his co-owners sold the business off to a group of firefighters when they couldn’t keep up with bookings.
After attaining his B.Comm degree from the U of M, Lloyd got his start in tech by founding Calgary-based ComputerCorp Systems Inc. with computer sales, service and training centres in most western Canadian cities, including Winnipeg.
In 1994, Lloyd moved on to Cisco, then a direct-sales company with about $900 million in revenue. Lloyd became Cisco’s 3,343rd employee; he would go on to oversee 40,000 there as President.
Back then, Cisco’s business focused on transforming corporate networks to Internet Protocol.
“I feel amazingly fortunate to have experienced a massive transition we all take for granted today, which was the internet,” he said.
Lloyd was named CEO of Virgin Hyperloop One September 2015. Under his leadership, Hyperloop raised over $300 million in funding and ran numerous full-scale successful test runs at its test track in the Nevada desert.
Hyperloop technology moves a pod about half the size of a regional jet (which will be able to carry about 22 passengers or palletized cargo) on a bed of magnetic levitation inside a pressurized tube with an electric linear motor propelling it at speeds up to 320 km/h. Travelling in a controlled environment, there’s no turbulence, no open track and minimized possibility for human error.
Lloyd likens his time with Hyperloop to “the cherry on the cupcake” of his career.
“I found a truly amazing group of engineering talent I had never really experienced,” he said. “The concept we take for granted in IT today is dev-ops. We develop, we operate, we develop, we operate. We constantly iterate and that’s how we make progress with software and systems. But that had not been applied to transportation hardware. Watching that cycle for three years was absolutely fascinating.”
After the successful test runs the company undertook the Hyperloop One Global Challenge to work toward a real-world application. Entries came in from around the world, but Lloyd said India is the likeliest candidate for the first Hyperloop, possibly between Mumbai and Pune.
The ‘sweet spot’ for Hyperloop travel is likely between 50 and 1,500 kilometres, with a goal to reduce travel time between the centres of large cities.
“Hyperloop could change the dynamic of work life, relationships, real estate prices,” Lloyd said. “If you can work in downtown Toronto or San Francisco and travel there from 250 miles away for less time than it takes to drive the QEW from Burlington to Toronto, you could live anywhere.”
Lloyd’s time in Silicon Valley put him in touch with many icons of the tech world, like Apple’s Steve Jobs, Virgin’s Richard Branson, Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX) and Cisco’s John Chambers.
“They get trends,” Lloyd said. “They understand when something’s really going to change. They’re really intuitive about market transitions.”
Among the four, personalities definitely varied.
“John and Richard are both such ‘people people.’ They are so empathetic. They care so much and they’re so patient,” Lloyd said.
“Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are so much about engineering, accomplishments, excellence, building the absolute best thing that could ever possibly be built and when it’s built, criticized the heck out of the people who built it and built something better.”
After stepping away from Hyperloop, Lloyd has embraced something far from the big-money deals of Silicon Valley — the flying disc/Frisbee sport known as Ultimate. The non-contact team sport is rooted in integrity with players self-officiating, even at the highest levels.
“This game has a lot of attributes I think are really for important for today’s society,” Lloyd said.
When one of Lloyd’s four sons, Mark, took up the sport in high school, he admits thinking it was ‘fun, but stupid.’ Now, Lloyd is chairman of the 21-team semi-professional American Ultimate Disc League and owner of the Toronto Rush team. Mark is the team’s GM and a player.
If there was one thing Lloyd could change in retrospect, it would be his work-life balance.
“It wasn’t there,” he said. “If I have any regrets, it would be sitting on conference calls when I should have been driving a boat and tubing.”
Lloyd tells younger people he works with now to take their holidays, find a back-up and unplug.
“You can easily get 150 emails a day and deal with them all,” he said. “You can work all day long, because we have the tools.”
Lloyd sees promising signs of balance in newer generations.
“The workforce being graduated today has different values and thinks differently about career,” he said.
Lloyd sees a bright future for the ICT sector in Manitoba and the country at large.
“I don’t think you need to leave Canada in order to succeed, build a company, to become successful in many ways, including wealthy,” he said. “The venture capital industry still lags here. There’s tons of effort to make that better, but we still don’t have the level that exists in Silicon Valley or other places.”
Lloyd supports charitable educational causes, firmly believing in the role education plays in changing lives.
“It’s the great equalizer,” Lloyd said. He told the audience Canada’s post-secondary education opportunities give our country a leg up in the future of tech.
“The world recruits from many Canadian universities in engineering and ICT,” he said.
“Pretty much anybody can go to university in Canada, and that is not the case in the country south of us.”
Lloyd says most current high-schoolers aren’t sure of what career they want, and that’s OK.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do and computers sounded cool, sounded like the future, so that’s what I did,” he said.
“What we have that we didn’t have years ago is internships and the chance to experience different things … Get an internship and try to start working at a company that interests you.”
ICTAM plays a key role in Manitoba’s tech ecosystem.
“We are committed to elevating our industry in Manitoba through collaboration and by connecting to opportunities and resources that contribute to growth and prosperity,” said Ryan Klassen, Vice President of Business Solutions at Bell MTS and President of ICTAM’s Board of Directors. “Whether it’s through events like this or programs like our gender-parity initiative, Maven, or our market access project, Tech West Canada, ICTAM exists to build an environment where innovation can thrive.”
Bell MTS was again presenting sponsor of The Innovators 2019. Red River College, the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology and IBM were gold sponsors. The event’s silver sponsor was Online Business Systems. Event supporters included BDC, Thompson Dorfman Sweatman, NetSet Communications, EPIC Information Solutions and Imaginet. Promotional partners were 6P Marketing and CTV. ICTAM offers special thanks to Luxe Furniture, the Government of Manitoba and the Government of Canada.