Elon Musk: The man making the future happen
Nobody dreams as big as Elon Musk, the serial entrepreneur who has space in his sights
For a man who has just been introduced as a modern Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Henry Ford, the 41-year-old Elon Musk looks nervous and hesitant as he takes the stage at Oxford University’s Sheldonian Theatre, fiddles with his jacket (no tie) and takes a long draught of water before starting to speak to the 700 who have filled Sir Christopher Wren’s balconies to hear him.
Musk is tall, broad-shouldered and lean, and his physical presence, wealth and reputation ought to make him intimidating. But he speaks in the calm, reflective, even hippyish cadences of Silicon Valley and his accent, like his first name, is neutral and unplaceable, as suits a man whose ambitions and activities are extraplanetary.
He starts many sentences with “So”, and having built four billion-dollar businesses is comfortable with conspicuous understatement. “So I decided to do a couple of internet companies,” he says as he summarises his early career, “and that actually worked out reasonably well.”
Musk came to Oxford in the midst of a few months which have been extraordinary even by the absurdly compressed, accelerated standards of that career.
South African by birth, now a US citizen, and a physicist by training, he made two dotcom fortunes by 31, selling an online publishing business to Compaq for $307 million, and then, with his partners, selling PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002.
Musk then decided to invest his considerable resources in what he thinks are the three most important issues facing humanity. He had already conquered the internet. To help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels he founded Solar City, which builds and installs solar panels, and electric carmaker Tesla. And to further his belief that we should become a “space-faring civilisation” he founded SpaceX “to develop the technology to transport large numbers of people and cargo to Mars. That has to be solved at some point by some company, or it’s not going to happen.”
Musk is as charming in private as he is modest in public, and has an instantly apparent intelligence. He is chief executive at both Tesla and SpaceX, but is far more than a walking wallet: he creates the products too, holding the titles of product architect at the former and chief technology officer at the latter.
We met in Detroit recently, a couple of months after his Oxford appearance. He opens with an unprompted reference to his unsuccessful legal action against
over a segment which implied that a Tesla had run out of charge and had to be pushed. It plainly still rankles. “Jeremy Clarkson is a huge d**k,” he says, “and you can quote me on that.”
These past few months have been good for Musk. In October, his Dragon spacecraft docked with the International Space Station, the first mission in his $1.6 billion (€1.22 billion) resupply contract with Nasa.