Former Tesla exec launches local electric boat company
John Vo, the former global head of manufacturing at Tesla, believes Tampa Bay can become a unique version of Silicon Valley.
He is particularly bullish on the St. Petersburg area, and for a good reason. Vo relocated from the Northern California technology hub and founded Blue Innovations Group (BIG) in late 2021. The environmental and tech-focused company now hopes to disrupt the boating industry from its Tampa Bay headquarters, similar to how Tesla transformed automotive manufacturing.
All of BIG’s products will emanate from its facility in Pinellas Park. The first offering is the R30, a 30-foot all-electric power boat that produces 800 horsepower from dual motors. It also features a 220kEh battery pack and an onboard solar charging system. In congruence with the R30’s launch, BIG plans to install its first Blue Fast Charger (BFC) locally before expanding locations throughout the U.S. and the world.
“Typically, this kind of company starts and is born on the West Coast,” said Vo. “And we’re trying to do the same thing here in Florida. I think with the good weather, good culture and everything here, it’s just a matter of time before we bring that environment here.”
Vo left Silicon Valley for Riverview about two years ago. As a small startup, initial operations began in that east Tampa Bay city. The company quickly matured, and Vo decided to plant BIG’s roots near St. Petersburg.
Blue Innovations currently employs about 30 people, and Vo said those are mostly engineers. He expects that number to grow to 100 by the end of 2023, with the potential for thousands of local workers if he can scale the company according to plan.
“We designed and made the boat here locally,” said Vo. “But the next year is really about building the engineering unit, testing it and getting the manufacturing ready. The real manufacturing will not happen until ’24, and of course, the team will grow a lot bigger.”
After operating “in stealth mode” for the last two years, Vo will formally unveil BIG to the nation at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show. The keystone event takes place at the Las Vegas Convention Center Jan. 5-8, and the founder will demonstrate the R30’s innovative hull, propulsion system and user interface.
In addition to spreading product awareness, Vo said the Electronics Show is a chance to create supplier partnerships and customer interest. It is also an opportune time to attract investors.
“We want to tell people we are here in St. Pete, Florida,” said Vo. “Just a public introduction for our company and our product.”
He relayed that his background includes working with semiconductors, solar energy and building electric cars, and he called his foray into marine-based vehicles “a natural progression.” Vo noted boat production is one of the world’s oldest industries.
However, unlike the automotive industry, he explained that boat manufacturing is severely fragmented. There is a preponderance of new technology available for boat production, said Vo, but the industry lacks a company to put it all together – like Tesla.
He also bemoaned the inefficiency of traditional vessels. Boaters are well aware of the fuel costs associated with taking a 30’ boat out for the day, and boaterpal.com’s latest update reports higher octane gasoline from a marina typically goes for $.50 to $1.50 more per gallon than at a gas station.
Vo also relayed the frequency of maintenance issues and repairs with conventional boats. He said owning one is expensive, cumbersome and intimidating.
“And that shouldn’t be,” he added. “So, I want to change that. I want to make the boating experience friendly, fun and affordable. And it makes sense from a sustainable energy standpoint.”
Vo expects the R30 to come with an initial $300,000 price point. He said other similar size and quality boats cost consumers over $200,000 and don’t include 800 horsepower, a cabin, a kitchen and myriad technological advances.
Like Tesla vehicles, he also envisions offering autonomous driving capabilities through software updates. The ultimate goal, Vo added, is for the boat to pay for itself over time due to the reduction in fuel, maintenance and repair costs.
He believes the R30’s design will make it more durable and plans to offer a lifetime hull warranty. Vo expects it to run for eight hours on a charge, enough time to travel well offshore and back. Customers can utilize 220 kWh charging at home, the solar unit or eventually, the fast-charging stations, which will replenish the boat’s battery within an hour.
“It’s just a matter of engineering – it’s not like rocket science,” he said. “I think boaters deserve some attention. I think boaters have not been getting that love from people who produced the products for a long time.”
Vo relayed that the most significant challenge is acquiring the same technologically-focused talent typically found in Silicon Valley. However, he said that is only a temporary issue due to the live-work-play atmosphere the Tampa Bay region provides.
He named his company Blue Innovations Group because the earth, comprised mostly of water, looks blue from space. As such, he said a primary reason for launching BIG is to create sustainable marine technologies.
He expressed that Tampa Bay, with its propensity for boating and focus on sustainability and the blue economy, made sense for BIG’s headquarters. Vo said he immediately fell in love with the area and its residents after visiting a couple of years ago and believes all the Florida-based jokes he heard well told by people that were “just jealous.”
“If everything goes well, we can grow into thousands of jobs here,” said Vo. “And not just manufacturing jobs – engineering jobs, software and hardware – you name it.
“There’s no reason the West Coast should have all the fun, right?”
December 25, 2022at11:58 am
Great story. This could be big. It’s a luxury product many might desire. Best Wishes Mr Vo.
December 26, 2022at6:42 am
Welcome to Tampa Bay!
I can’t wait to see these in our area.
I’m ready to test a beta version when you are!
As a boater and a creative thinker, I have an idea to share.
Exciting article to herald the New Year!
January 7, 2023at3:34 pm
My apologies for the late response, but thank you so much! It is truly an exciting time for our region.