The Blue Economy
Electric boat builder John Vo talks up Florida's advantages and the benefits of electric.
John Vo, former vice president of propulsion at electric pickup truck maker Lordstown Motors and head of global manufacturing for Tesla, moved to Florida in 2020. He heads Blue Innovations Group, an electric boat startup based in Pinellas Park. It’s working on a line of boats, one of which would have solar charging panels, an 800-hp powertrain and run on a 220-kilowatt battery.
Did Florida draw you as a place to make electric boats?
I considered the weather, the culture, the cost of living. I came to the conclusion the Tampa Bay area was one of the best places in the United States. I did not come to Florida to start a boat company. I started a boat company because I came to Florida. There’s no reason why we could not do the same thing or better here in Florida versus Silicon Valley. The people here are smart. If anything, I think the Floridians are more adventurous than other places. And that to me is the perfect DNA for a startup. You need to be a little crazy to make it work in a startup.
Floridians and Californians use the ocean differently.
The people in Florida love to get on the water. In California, you don’t because the water is colder and it’s rougher. In California, you look out on the ocean. In Florida, you get on the ocean.
You premiered your boat at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas instead of at a boat show. Why?
We didn’t really premier a boat. We premiered a hull. Typically, people go to the boat show because they want to sell their boat. We’re not there yet, right? We’re selling the company. We want the investor to be interested. Typically, people would spend a couple million dollars to build a very nice prop. I didn’t believe in paying a couple million dollars for that prop. I just took one of the engineering development hulls People had to come see it. ‘What is the ugly thing?’ I got half of my marketing done. I got you to come to the booth.
Will you manufacture your boats in Florida?
We are planning to build the boat in Pinellas Park. Of course, this facility is only 50,000 square feet. It could be low volume — a few hundred boats a year. Once we get established, we’re going to build a much bigger factory.
How is electric boating different from electric autos?
You have a bigger profit margin. You have a much lower volume so it’s quite different. The good news is there are mom-and-pop shops out there that make just a few boats a year, and they survive and make money. So there’s hope.
How will you compete with existing boat makers who are bringing out electric boats?
If you’ve been building fiberglass boats for many years and then you’re going to try to build some new boat, what are you going to do? You’re going to use fiberglass because that’s what you know, that’s what you have. We don’t have any legacy to protect. We look at the boat as how it should be built.
What kinds of things are you looking at?
The product is all about enhancing the experience of the user. Now you get on the boat, you stress out. There are so many buttons. It’s not intuitive. It’s difficult to get it out. And then you fill up the tank, it costs you so much money. Lots of times it doesn’t even start. The boat is noisy; you can’t even talk. The smell is bad. We want to eliminate all that stuff.
This year, we’re going to build five different vessels for development. At the same time, we have to set up equipment for manufacturing for next year. The goal is Q2 2024 to actually start delivering to customers. We’re using the boat as a way to launch our capability. Ultimately, the growth in our business is not going to be from selling boats but rather helping other boat companies to move toward a sustainable solution. We believe boating is essential to humanity.