Sea of Tranquility
Chuan "John" Vo wants to bring quiet, eco-friendly electric boats to the water near you.
The two happiest times in a boat owner’s life are the days they buy and sell their boats, as the saying goes. Between steep costs for gas, storage, and keeping the vessel running, the outlays often outweigh the good times. Chuan “John” Vo (B.S. ’96, M.S.E. ’02) wants to change that by bringing an all-electric power boat to market, applying his deep and varied experience in manufacturing and technology—including a stint at Tesla.
Vo set sail with Blue Innovations Group (BIG), headquartered in Tampa, Florida, in late 2021 to design and manufacture a fleet of electric boats. He hopes to remove many of the pain points of the marine lifestyle through innovation, just as electric cars are revving to do in the automotive sector.
“Recreational boating is a major business in the United States, and people think about their boat as a money sinkhole and a liability,” Vo says. “I want to change that perception.… Our goal is to create an electric boat, and fundamentally, it should pay for itself over time” from savings on gas and maintenance.
BIG plans to launch its R30 boat in 2024. The 30-foot craft is designed to run for eight hours, powered by a 220-kilowatt battery and an 800-horsepower dual motor powertrain. Its onboard solar charging platform will extend the boat’s run time while also providing shade. The company says its 12-seater—complete with a below-deck kitchen and bathroom—can achieve 45 mph on open water. All those options won’t come cheap, however: The company’s initial offering will be priced starting in the $300,000 range.
Vo has many reasons to channel his wide-ranging expertise into electric boats. Advancing sustainable energy is top of mind, along with reducing pollution and noise on the water. But boats also have special meaning for Vo: He was born in Vietnam, and left the Communist country by boat in search of a better life. To him, boats symbolize freedom.
The teenager settled in Rockford, Minnesota, where he attended high school before attending the University of Minnesota. Always up for a challenge, Vo tackled the chemical engineering program for its legendary difficulty and thrived. He also worked at 3M while completing his degree.
Next Vo worked at Cypress Semiconductor in Bloomington for seven years, while earning his master’s degree in manufacturing systems engineering. That led to new opportunities at Honeywell Aerospace. Eager to deploy innovation to solve problems, Vo moved to Silicon Valley in 2007 to serve as director of engineering at MiaSolé, a start-up focused on solar energy.
When Vo joined Tesla as head of global manufacturing in 2011, he brought deep technical expertise along with experience in research and development, engineering, and product development. He flourished in a dynamic environment that pushes the boundaries of new technology.
“If you work for Elon Musk for almost seven years, you learn a thing or two. I learned that anything is possible,” Vo says. “He has audacious goals, and his goals seem crazy. But when you break them down, they make a lot of sense. They are highly orchestrated and linked to the fundamental ‘why’ of what we are doing.”
Vo’s “whys” for starting BIG include harnessing cutting-edge technology for good, and creating a workplace that fosters innovation and treats employees well. He launched BIG after gaining experience at three start-ups focusing on electric and autonomous vehicles, including Portable Power Innovations—which he started in 2017 and sold about a year later.
For Vo, BIG is an outlet to do what he loves: innovating and building teams of talented employees who are propelled to bring fresh ideas to life. An optimist who fundamentally believes that people want to work hard, Vo set out to create a culture that enables them to contribute. BIG now employs 40 people, many of them engineers, who own 20 percent of the company. “We have ambitious goals, and we have fun doing it,” Vo says.
Though BIG faces significant competition from big-name players in boating, Vo says his company is building electric boats from scratch, instead of retrofitting new technology into old models.
“The marine industry is way overdue for revolution—it’s pretty obsolete,” Vo says. "It contributes significantly to carbon monoxide generation every year. From an economic point of view, it made sense to go into this market.”
He sees a strong future for BIG as the electric boat industry takes off. His plans include eventually developing other models like sailboats and modular floating homes. “It’s exciting. The most exciting part for me is that I like to see people grow and mature and become a team,” he says.