Out of Tampa Bay, former Tesla exec is betting on electric boats

The Pinellas Park-based company hopes to expand across Florida, then globally.
A rendering of the R30, an electric boat being developed by Blue Innovations Group in Pinellas Park.
A rendering of the R30, an electric boat being developed by Blue Innovations Group in Pinellas Park. [ Courtesy of Blue Innovations Group ]
Published Dec. 27, 2022

As Tesla helped usher in electric cars, a Tampa Bay company seeks to do the same for boating.

Blue Innovations Group, founded by former Tesla global head of manufacturing Chuan “John” Vo, is working out of Pinellas Park on a 30-foot-long boat powered by only electricity.

In January, Blue Innovations Group will debut the hull and propulsion system of its first boat called the R30 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The company, which started operating a year ago, will test the product throughout 2023 and expects to begin selling in the second quarter of 2024. The R30 boat is expected to run eight hours using a 220-kilowatt battery and a dual motor powertrain with 800 horsepower. It would also have an on-board solar charging platform.

Vo, 51, said he chose to launch the company in the Tampa Bay area instead of Silicon Valley because of its waters, technology culture and the influx of people moving to the area.

“Maybe I’m speculating, but I see the transition of technology development changing in the Tampa area coming from tourists, retirees, and how the people from different geographies are changing the type of economy,” Vo said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “I’m just trying to catch that.”

Vo said he believes electric boats are the next step in sustainable transportation after electric vehicles popularized sustainable alternatives to gasoline. And it’s a fairly untapped market compared to EVs. The electric boat market is expected to grow 13.7% to $11.35 billion by 2028 in the U.S., according to a study published last month by market research firm Insight Partners.

“It’s a perfect place to market a boat because people here will buy a boat,” Vo said. “And it’s going to be much more competitive with cost of living versus San Francisco. Tampa is going to be a better hub for Blue Innovations Group than in Silicon Valley.”

Vo managed global manufacturing for Tesla for 6 years until 2017 before working at several other electric vehicle companies. His last venture was at an electric pickup truck startup Lordstown Motors, where he and several other executives drew the Securities and Exchange Commission’s attention for selling shares ahead of turmoi. Vo sold 9% of his stake in Lordstown Motors in February 2021, about 3 months after the company went public and weeks after a prototype pickup truck set on fire, the Wall Street Journal reported. Vo had to return the profits from making short-swing transactions, which is when a company insider illegally sells shares within six-months of buying them.

A portrait of Blue Innovations Group CEO and former Tesla executive John Vo
A portrait of Blue Innovations Group CEO and former Tesla executive John Vo [ Courtesy of Blue Innovations Group ]

“I like to forget about that,” Vo said, adding he lost $1 million investing in that company. From what he learned working in the EV world, he said that electric vehicles requires a lot of infrastructure and investment. As more major companies like Ford and Toyota entered the EV market to compete against Tesla, Vo said there isn’t much room left for newcomers.

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It’s also much more expensive to mass produce cars, Vo said, while boats don’t have to be made at the same quantity to be profitable.

Tampa Bay’s electric vehicle scene has grown in recent years. Tesla is working on developing its first Pinellas County dealership in Lealman while Swedish-brand Polestar opened a showroom in Midtown Tampa. Regent, a Boston-based aerospace company, chose Tampa at the end of 2021 to test its electric boat-plane hybrid set to go to market in 2025. Now, Blue Innovations Group, set up its manufacturing site and headquarters on 3690 70th Ave N. in Pinellas Park.

Vo said he’s taking some inspiration from his former boss and Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, on how to manage a company.

“I won’t speak for my old boss but I did learn a lot from him, like his audacious goals and how to achieve them. I want to create a company where people can share a common goal and vision, that they feel that they can belong to something much bigger than themselves, collectively, that we can create a beautiful product that’s good for the Earth and makes sense for the economy of the people,” Vo said.

But he also emphasized building the R30 electric boat with a healthy work-life balance.

“With careful planning, the right culture, you can have your cake and eat it. You can have fun and be productive at the same time,” Vo said. “You don’t have to be extreme.”

Vo said in order for electric boats to take off with consumers, they need to be cost-effective. While the original sticker price for the R30 boat will be comparable to any other boat, Vo said boaters can save money in the longterm. Charging boats would be cheaper than buying gasoline for each trip and Blue Innovations Group plans to create more durable parts so owners don’t have to spend as often on maintenance costs.

In addition to the boat, Blue Innovations Group is developing chargers for the boats called the Blue Fast Charger. The company will start implementing them across Florida before expanding nationally and then globally.

“With sunny Florida, you can charge things all week long and on the weekend for free. Doesn’t cost you anything,” Vo said. “The economics is what’s gonna propel people towards adopting.”