Exploring space technology so humans can live on other planets and developing a subsonic air travel machine that goes faster than commercial planes: these are hugely ambitious – and some would say unlikely – plans. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has the CV and attitude of someone who might just succeed.
Compared to the scale of his current projects, the South Africa-born American could be said to have started small with his companies PayPal and Tesla Motors, which are at the top of their game as online transaction portal (now sold) and electric car company respectively (Tesla outsold all other electric cars combined in the first quarter of 2013).
SpaceX was born in 2002 to design, manufacture and launch rockets and spacecraft, aiming to revolutionise space technology so people can move to other planets. Last year, it became the first commercial company to visit the International Space Station, delivering the Dragon spacecraft into orbit via its rocket Falcon 9. The craft and rocket have been designed with the pure intention of sending humans into space, under an agreement with NASA.
Musk then announced this summer a plan to create a high-speed link that would travel the 350miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay in under thirty minutes. He called the proposed invention Hyperloop, a system that would reduce aerodynamic drag by using a partial vacuum, making it faster and less power-consuming and therefore cheaper than other methods of transport. It is proposed it will rely on solar power – another of his business interests.
It is the job of any entrepreneur to guess ahead, predict what will be desired or where a gap in the market will emerge so that when demand arises, their product or service is ready and waiting. But, even if you have only read the last three paragraphs on Musk, the common comparison to Steve Jobs already seems a little inferior. His outlook is bigger than the personal technology we carry with us.
He talks about ‘life becoming multi-planetary’ as the next step in our evolution. Enabling people to live on Mars sounds like a pipe dream, coming from a man who really appears to be making things happen; he co-founded the favourite way to pay for things online and has made green cars efficient, popular and the ‘safest in America’.
Musk oversees product development at Tesla and is the chief designer at SpaceX – but he concedes his ideas come from the same old ‘it came to me in the shower’ moment as everyone else. While he remains at the helm throughout the execution of his ideas, he does admit he seeks out feedback – especially negative feedback.
David Burkus, the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas, says: “Musk’s career seems counterintuitive, marked by a constantly shifting focus. He holds one bachelor’s degree in economics and a second in physics, but his range of activities goes far beyond just those domains. It’s perplexing that any one person can have such a series of successes in seemingly unrelated fields.”
Burkus believes there is a common misconception about creative people, that they are often the most experienced in their field. “In reality, breakthroughs are often made by people at the fringes of an activity, by those with a base of knowledge and the ability to bring fresh ideas to the table—people such as Elon Musk.”
By staying on the outskirts of several industries and not immersing himself in one entirely, Musk could be more prone to disruptive ideas, aided by his ability to fund ambitious projects such as the Hyperloop.
We’ll leave you with a tweet that beautifully illustrates Musk’s audacious approach to creativity and innovation:
We figured out how to design rocket parts just w hand movements through the air (seriously). Now need a high frame rate holograph generator.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 23, 2013