Picture the scene: a network of underground tunnels ferrying millions of parcels across the UK at high speed using magnetic motors. It might seem like a glimpse into the future, but such a vision could soon be a reality thanks to a groundbreaking British start-up.
Founded by entrepreneurs Phill Davies and Rupert Cruise, Magway is a delivery system designed to transport people’s online orders through a network of pipes, combating congestion and pollution, using linear motor technology.
“It’s an absolute game changer,” says Davies, who has more than 25 years of experience in retail and technology.
“We are at a point where the current infrastructure can’t cope with the amount of deliveries. The biggest challenges are air quality, road safety, congestion and road maintenance, and we can help with all of these.”
Launched in 2017, the company has received close to £3 million in private and grant funding, including more than £2.5m from Innovate UK, the government’s technology innovation accelerator.
Magway’s Innovate UK project consortium partners comprise Ocado, Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation, Space Syntax, Force Engineering and TRL. The entrepreneurs are running a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the development of a full commercial pilot.
Initially, Magway will provide short freight delivery routes travelling in and out of major airport hubs and theme parks, but the plan is to install longer routes of up to 100km that will form a network of delivery pipes, each one 0.9 metres in diameter, connecting the UK.
“At scale, we think we can remove more than one third of emissions from freight off UK roads – that’s six million tonnes of carbon dioxide,” says Davies, a Muswell Hill Synagogue member who is married to BBC News presenter Samantha Simmonds. Magway has the capacity to transport two lorry loads per minute, and send 72,000 parcels an hour or 12 million per week through each pipe in each direction securely and efficiently.
Manchester-born Davies has always had an entrepreneurial flare. At university, he had a business selling inflatables at football grounds. “I used to stand outside Maine Road selling inflatable bananas.” But, “to appease his parents”, he qualified with Deloitte and worked in strategy consulting, and also at Lehman Brothers as a vice president European IT services equity research analyst. He is active in the start-up space helping various companies including LOVESPACE and RotaGeek with their commercial roll-outs.
Cruise, a member of New London Synagogue, is one of the world’s pre-eminent experts on linear motors. He has worked on illustrious tech engineer Elon Musk’s Hyperloop project, and designed linear motor systems for US navy aircraft carriers. After almost seven years in academia as a researcher and lecturer at Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg, the engineer completed an MBA at Oxford University. He is married to Gila, who works for Investec.
The men met about seven years ago on an entrepreneur’s programme run by the Saïd Business School and Goldman Sachs. Davies recalls: “About three and a half years ago we started talking about the changing habits of online ordering.”
The “light-bulb moment” came when Davies ordered three identical products at the same time. He received them on different days and ended up sending two of them back.
“I was working for a business doing online returns so, again, I saw this explosion of goods going back and experienced it myself.”
By 2021, roughly 93 percent of UK internet users are expected to shop online – the highest online shopping penetration rate in Europe, says Statista. “We thought: ‘Ok, we think the hyperloop space is cool and we love it, but it’s about 15 or 20 years away, how can we address this now?’”
Magway’s system uses magnetic motors, powered by electricity, to shuttle pods filled with goods through pipes above and below ground. Davies explains:
“We are using an electromagnetic force. We have a powered rail and we create a magnetic wave across the rail. There are permanent magnets mounted on our carriages and it repels them along the route. That means there are no moving parts in the drive train. Our solution means we have very low maintenance and operating costs. We have effectively taken the driver, engine and fuel out of the carriage.”
There are no batteries and it sounds like something from a film. “The Jetsons and Star Trek comes up a lot in meetings. One of the biggest challenges is that people hear it and think ‘wow’. They get the problem and understand the need for a solution, but we are having to convince people this is the here and now and we can deliver it today and affordably. You only need to look in any newspapers to read about the environmental challenges we are facing.”
Magway has generated much international interest and was the winner of the New Civil Engineer’s Visionary Airports award, a finalist in the Heathrow Innovation Competition, named as one of Top 100 Global Start-ups by Singapore Government Slingshot, Michelin Movin’ On Competition, and Slaughter and May’s Fast Forward Competition.
Davies acknowledges it’s quite an unusual venture for two Jewish entrepreneurs. “Yeh, and I don’t think the Wright Brothers were Jewish, although I’m sure if you went back far enough you might find some link. The Wrightovitches…” he jokes.
But they might soon have something in common. “We think it’s the equivalent to the Wright Brothers or the introduction of mobile phones,” says Davies.
“It happens in a generation where you have a new mode of transport or a new technology being introduced and we are doing it, sitting in a fairly small warehouse in Wembley. It is genuinely that exciting.”
- Rupert Cruise
- Phill Davies
- Candice Krieger
- Down to business
- Old Oak
- Park Royal Development Corporation
- Space Syntax
- Force Engineering
- Samantha Simmonds
- Muswell Hill Synagogue
- New London Synagogue
- Elon Musk
- Hyperloop project
- Saïd Business School
- Goldman Sachs