Saturday, 29 December 2007

Silicon Valley space man

The South African has gone further than anyone could have imagined, writes Richard Waters

There are many reasons that entrepreneurs will give you for why they chanced their arm in the start-up business, but seeking a future for mankind beyond Earth is not one you hear too often.

Then again, Elon Musk is not the sort of entrepreneur you meet too often. "One of the most important things for humanity is expanding beyond Earth to become a space-based civilisation," says the South African-born rocket builder. "At the current rate we'd never get there."

If it were not for his track record as an entrepreneur and early success in space it would be easy to dismiss Musk as a dilettante, even a crackpot. The first rocket launched by SpaceX, the company he founded five years ago, blew up. But the second, in March, vaulted 200 miles into space before spinning out of control. That is three times as far as SpaceShipOne, which Richard Branson plans to use for space tourism, and the first time a privately financed rocket has reached orbital altitude.

Once he has cracked the not-inconsiderable problem of re-entry, Mr Musk claims he will have a low-cost, reuseable way of lifting heavy loads off the planet that "will be one of the biggest inventions in the history of space". It is a characteristic piece of bravado delivered in a low-key way that almost slips by unnoticed.

Yet others warn against underestimating a man who is largely self-taught in rocket science. "If you had asked Nasa, could anyone be successful with only two launches, they would have laughed at you," says Mark Anderson, a technology commentator who gave early encouragement to Mr Musk's space ambitions and has since been one of his biggest advocates. "You can see why he's very confident."

At 36, Mr Musk is developing the career arc of a modern-day Howard Hughes. Both men made it big in their early 20s in the dream factories of their day - Hughes in Hollywood, Mr Musk in Silicon Valley. In their 30s, both turned a personal passion for fast cars and aircraft into a budding aerospace business.

Mr Musk brushes off the playboy image this implies, yet there are telltale signs of the wealth and the fascination for fast things that have allowed him to indulge his fantasies: the personal jet, the McLaren sports car. Along with SpaceX, his current business ventures include Tesla Motors, which plans next year to launch the world's first production-run all-electric sports car.

Yet there is a pragmatic side to Mr Musk that helps to explain how he has come so far. "It seems sort of mundane to have as your goal to reduce costs and improve reliability - but to get there, many hard things have to be invented," he says of SpaceX. This mixture of pragmatism and soaring ambition is typical of a generation of techno-entrepreneurs that has grown up during Silicon Valley's latest boom and is looking to reach into new industries. Overnight success on the internet showed them that radical ideas can have big consequences, while their technical skills taught them to believe that no problem is insurmountable.

Mr Musk, who studied physics and finance, does not have the computer science or engineering background that is the more common hallmark of his generation, yet displays a polymath interest in a wide array of sciences. It is an outlook and style that is typical of this generation, which includes fellow Stanford drop-outs Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google.

For members of this new techno-entrepreneurial class, there is one overriding principle: think big. Mr Musk, who arrived at Stanford University in the mid-1990s as a post-graduate student, took easily to the Silicon Valley ethos. "I wanted to be involved in something that would matter to the world and be important to the future of humanity," he says matter-of-factly. Space, the internet and renewable energy were the big thoughts on his mind. It was the internet that drew him first: "The world was acquiring a nervous system, where any part of it had a connection to any other part of it. It fundamentally changed humanity."

Mr Musk's first internet venture, Zip2, was sold for $307m and made him rich before he was 28. His second, one of two companies that later merged to create PayPal, the internet payment service, was sold to eBay for $1.5bn. The Silicon Valley start-up style that went into these companies has now been transported to southern California, centre of the US aerospace industry, and used as the template for SpaceX. "You lasso the smartest people you can find, who are fed up themselves with Nasa and want to build something of value," explains Mr Anderson. "You ask a lot of questions, you challenge everything, you go from the ground up, but you don't reinvent anything you don't have to."

Mr Musk's approach has had its flaws, and his impatient management style has not always worked. At PayPal, he was sacked as chief executive after falling out with other members of senior management. The coup came during what he now admits was an inexcusable absence: taking his wife to Australia on a mixture of vacation and money-raising mission. "To be away two weeks was asking for trouble, it was a dumb move," he says, though he concedes: "Basically, I pushed the team too hard."

In recent weeks, it has been Mr Musk who has had to do the sacking. Tesla has failed to hit its delivery targets due to transmission problems and has become what Mr Musk calls his "problem child". Co-founder Martin Eberhard was sacked this summer - Mr Musk now cannot bring himself to say Mr Eberhard's name.

The rocket is also a work in progress, not least because of that little problem of the uncontrolled spin. But SpaceX looks to be well past the stage of being a rich man's folly. With orders for a dozen commercial launches over the next two and a half years, Mr Musk says his company is already profitable and will succeed even if several of those launches fail.

If Mr Musk is inclined to slow down once his ventures prove themselves, he gives no indication of it (he also makes time for his five young children, including, on the day we speak, the morning school run and carving out family time before bedtime.)

How to account for the frenetic pace? Mr Musk says he has an acute awareness of his own mortality: "I'm very sensitive to the passage of time." No matter that, at 36, he has achieved more than most men his age. There are new worlds waiting to be conquered.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

1 comment:

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