SpaceX's Hyperloop competition at Texas A&M University this weekend is attracting a swarm of attention from engineering students, government officials, media, Elon Musk fanboys, and, of course, corporate sponsors. Some of those sponsors make total sense, like Hyperloop Technologies Inc. (HTI), an LA-based startup that aims to build the world's first working Hyperloop, or Aecom, the giant construction company that builds bridges, tunnels, and stadiums. And some are, on the surface, a bit more head-scratching. Like Nickelodeon, the 36-year-old cable network famous for such programs as Rugrats and SpongeBob SquarePants.
Ren and Stimpy and Elon?
Nickelodeon is considering sponsoring one or more of the teams involved in the Hyperloop design competition, specifically those that are still in high school, as a way to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education with kids. The sponsorship would include a $20,000 (or more) grant to help build a real-life version of the team's pod design.
It's noteworthy chunk of change because it puts the network on quasi-equal footing with Hyperloop Tech, which is contributing $150,000 in prize money to the competition. But the Hyperloop company and the cable channel that once made saying "I don't know" synonymous with getting green slime dumped on your head have different motivations: HTI wants to recruit future Hyperloop engineers, whereas Nickelodeon just wants to get kids interested in science and engineering.
Andrew Awad is one of those kids, a 17-year-old junior at St. John's High School in Houston and the team captain of HyperLift, his school's Hyperloop team. Last November, he got a call from Nickelodeon expressing interest in sponsoring his team. He didn't think anything would come of it until this month, when he got another call confirming that his team would almost certainly be among those to receive funding from the network.
"It's not a technology company"
"I was in so much shock," Awad said. "It's not typical for company like Nickelodeon to sponsor an event like this. It's not a technology company. So it was really exciting hearing that news."
With Nickelodeon's money, Awad's team will be able to partner with another team, most likely one from college, to construct aspects of a real-life Hyperloop subsystem, like a cooling mechanism or air bearings. And with some additional funding, they hope to build a full-scale pod they can race at part two of Musk's Hyperloop competition in Hawthorne, Calif., this summer.
Andrew Machles, director of public affairs for Nickelodeon, first learned about the competition at Texas A&M from a conversation with his counterpart at SpaceX. The Hyperloop, and really anything that has to do with Elon Musk, was appealing to kids, he thought, and using some of the money the network spends on philanthropic projects on the Hyperloop event seemed to make logical sense.
"Their plans are ambitious"
Machles said that Nickelodeon has no plans to produce anything for television about the Hyperloop competition, and that its support for Awad's team was "purely within our corporate social responsibility mission." That said, the network will have a presence at the competition and looks forward to learning more about the high school teams submissions in particular, he added.
The Hyperloop will be expensive to build. Musk estimates the cost for a loop connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles to cost upwards of $7.5 billion. But the pod teams competing this weekend are just interested in winning enough money to compete in the test race in June. Even that will be a costly endeavor. Especially for a high school team without a well-endowed university system to support them.
"Andrew and his team are going to have a hard time moving to the build phase, even with our support," Machles added. "Their plans are ambitious, which we love. But they're going to need other sponsors in addition to us to actually bring a full pod to life. And being in high school, they have some legitimate constraints on their time."
By the looks of this video, I don't think anyone should underestimate Awad and his team.