Elon Musk: electric ambitions


Most of Elon Musk’s projects would seem absurd in someone else’s hands, but this visionary thinker has succeeded with multiple projects. SALT profiles him 

The mid-nineties boom in Silicon Valley attracted investors, businesspeople, and entrepreneurs from all over the world. Many had little or no prior experience in the internet businesses, but all saw the potential in linking customers to stores they weren’t able to physically access. One new entrepreneur, appearing in California in 1995, had a 20-year history of programming, including having created and coded his own video game at the age of 12. Elon Musk’s first project, Blastar, placed the player in control of a spaceship traversing the surface of alien planets.

Born in South Africa in 1971, Musk was a precocious child. He started school a year early, and was disillusioned to discover that he was better at programming than his computer teacher. He read as many books and comics as he could find, including encyclopedias and dictionaries. He and his younger brother Kimbal managed to get remarkably close to opening their own video games arcade near their school. Their plan was only halted when the legal process requested an adult’s signature for the city permit.

As an alternative to South African national service, the 17-year-old- year old Musk took a flight to Canada, where he took an Engineering and Business degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He earned a scholarship to Stanford University, where he claims not to have attended class. “I called the chair of the department and said ‘I’d like to try starting this internet company. It probably won’t succeed, and so when it fails I want to make sure that I can still come back’. My brother was in Canada at the time and I said,’I think we should try to create an internet company’, so he came down and joined me.”

The brothers arrived in Silicon Valley shortly after. Following six months of work, they launched Zip2, a company which listed the locations of businesses on a map of California. Kimbal recalls:“We had someone literally throw a Yellow Pages book at us and tell us ‘You think you’ll ever replace this?’and we thought the guy was crazy. Not only were we going to replace it, but that’s not where it ended – we’d keep going from there.” After just three years, Compaq bought Zip2 for US$307 million. The Musk brothers were a respective 28 and 26, and each made about US$20 million from the exchange.

“I suddenly had the choice at that point of retiring, and buying an island somewhere and sipping Mai Tais,” remembers Elon. “But that really was not of interest to me. At all.”

In March 1999, very quickly after the sale of Zip2, Musk founded a company to enable electronic cash transfers, which soon merged with its greatest competitor to become PayPal, garnered multiple international clients, and was purchased by eBay in 2002 for US$1.5 billion. Elon’s personal share of the fee was US$180 million.

‘The overall sustainable energy problem is the biggest problem that we have to solve this century.’

Again, barely any time lapsed before Musk was back at work. “I went to the NASA website and found that there was no plan to go to Mars, and no plan to take the next step in space exploration.” He funded his next company himself, and SpaceX was born in 2002, with the “ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets”. His belief that space travel hadn’t advanced since the 1960s propelled him to set about trying to achieve that progression himself. Parallels have been made between Musk and Henry Ford, neither of whom invented the parts of their pioneering products, but both of whom streamlined the manufacture and processes involved in creating a more efficient model of their respective transport.

Musk’s next investment was in his own cousins, Lyndon and Peter Rive, who have run SolarCity since 2004. Musk acts as chairman whilst the company has grown into the largest solar power provider in the US, with an ethos focused on making solar-generated energy easily accessible to average consumers.

Muskalso invested in Tesla Motors in 2004. “The idea of an electric car is something that doesn’t look good, isn’t fast, doesn’t have high performance, has low range .. we wanted to break the mould of all of that. We sought to achieve something that was better than any gasoline car.”

‘It occurred to me that the financial sector had not seen a lot of innovation on the internet,’  Elon Musk

Better, he claims, not only because of the complete lack of negative impact the vehicles have on our planet’s environment, but also because once you buy a Tesla vehicle, you never have to spend on it again. The electricity to recharge it is free, and solar powered, which is an example of Musk’s businesses working beautifully in parallel. The Tesla ‘Superchargers’ that can recharge an electric vehicle will be powered by solar panelling from SolarCity. There are currently four Superchargers in the UK – three in London and one in Birmingham – with approximately 25 due to open by the end of 2015.

In June of this year, Musk announced a removal of the patents on Tesla’s vehicles, a move intended to encourage their competitors, mostly corporate giants only producing cars powered by gasoline, to join the manufacture of electric vehicles. On the Tesla website, Musk wrote “Given that annual new vehicle production is approaching 100 million per year and the global fleet is approximately two billion cars, it is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis. We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position.”

It is this pioneering, mould-breaking spirit that paints Musk as an adventurer, as well as an entrepreneur. To BBC’s Newsnight, Musk explained his thinking behind his most ambitious project.“Either we are a multi-planet species out there exploring the stars, or we are a single planet species waiting around for some eventual extinction event. Going and setting up a base on Mars would be the greatest adventure ever.” Musk’s focus on clean energy, environmentally harmless transport, and interstellar travel hark back to the video game he made when he was 12 – he doesn’t think it’ll be long until we really are in control of spaceships on Mars.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Peter Tsai on flickr