Elon Musk is arguably America’s greatest living innovator. He has achieved success with nearly everything he has touched and has been doing so ever since he sold his first piece of software at the age of 12, a computer game called Blastar.
The South African-born American citizen earned his first millions in his late-20’s after selling the company Zip2, which produced digital city guides used by the newspaper industry. But this was only the beginning for Musk. Before the check even cleared he’d moved on to his next venture, founding X.com. Over the following years, Musk continued to invest and start up new businesses, each one seemingly more groundbreaking and risky than the next. And each time, despite the odds, he came out on top.
Given his eccentric nature, uncompromising nature and drive, he’s often compared to the great scientist for whom he named his electric car company, Nikola Tesla. But, as Musk himself has stated, he’s actually more of an Edison man.
"The car company is called Tesla," Mr. Musk said. "And the reason it’s called Tesla is because we use an AC induction motor, which is an architecture that Tesla developed. And the guy probably deserves a little more play than he gets in current society. But on balance, I’m a bigger fan of Edison than Tesla because Edison brought his stuff to market and made those inventions accessible to the world, whereas Tesla didn’t really do that."
Musk’s self-assessment here is crucial to understanding the man. He isn’t as much of an inventor as he is an innovator and an entrepreneur. In fact, there are only 8 patents filed under his name (four from Tesla and few from Zip2). When comparing him against Tesla, who lacked all business savvy and preferred to spend his days toiling over the mysteries of electricity in isolation without any concern for profits, Musk couldn’t be more different.
His genius does not lie in his engineering or theoretical skills but in his managerial know-how and supply chain optimization abilities. He is extremely adept at finding cheaper ways of doing almost anything, as well as marketing burgeoning technologies and achieving public support.
Musk’s ambitions are not those of an inventor or scientist, but of a forward-thinking entrepreneur who’s global and environmental awareness have led him to recognize large-scale unmet needs in society where huge profits await the man or woman who provides a solution first.
The following quotation by Musk, in which he lays out the three major problems humanity faces, sheds light on his entrepreneurial motivations. “Three problems were of paramount significance to the future: One was the Internet, one was clean energy, and one was space."
Musk has thus far spent his life reckoning with these problems, whether by commercializing space flight, popularizing electric cars, batteries and solar panels, or innovating public transit.
Let’s take a closer look some of Musk’s most notable innovations.
After the sale of Zip2, Musk took his profits and founded another online business called X.com, which provided financial services such as e-mail payments. After a year, X.com was acquired by another company, which eventually became PayPal.
PayPal revolutionized the process of online payments and invoicing for small businesses. In 2002, EBay acquired PayPal, earning Musk $165 million dollars.
With the funds from the EBay purchase of PayPal, Musk formed SpaceX, a private aerospace and commercial space-travel company.
The goal of SpaceX was to offer transportation services from Earth to orbit at a lower cost than previously available. In 2006, SpaceX signed a deal with NASA to provide deliveries to the International Space Station.
SpaceX’s largest innovation thus far has been the creation of the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 – two ground to orbit launching vehicles, which are both reusable. The fact that these vehicles can return to Earth and be used more than once significantly lowers the cost of transporting materials into orbit. This lowering of cost will play a pivotal role in Musk’s vision of traveling to Mars as well, because it will result in a lower cost-per-seat ticket price for pioneers in the future – not to mention it’s eco-friendly benefits.
Musk’s most well known venture is the electric car company Tesla. Before Tesla, electric cars were very much a fringe product, driven mostly by wealthy persons with a certain level of environmental awareness. They were impractical for most people due to the high cost and lack of available charging stations.
Under Musk, Tesla first created the Roadster, which is a high-end vehicle that stands toe to toe with any gas-powered luxury car. What Musk managed to accomplish was to make electric cars cool and desirable – a major transformation in public opinion.
While the Roadster is still too expensive for most drivers, he’s stated in his Master Plan that Tesla intends to use the profits from the Roadster to produce a mid-priced vehicle which he will then in turn use the profits from to create an affordable model every family can afford.
While Musk did not invent the electric car, his company has innovated greatly upon the technology and pushed it closer to becoming a mass-market reality than any company prior.
Aside from revolutionizing the electric car industry, Tesla has also produced the Powerwall battery, which is an energy storage unit, intended for commercial and residential use. The Powerwall battery can be used by businesses and homeowners in conjunction with the grid to store and power facilities, replacing the need for gas-powered generators.
The battery will play a vital supporting role in the mass adoption of solar power technology. According to Tesla’s website, the “Powerwall 2 can power an average two-bedroom home for a full day. Compact, stackable and with a built-in inverter, installation is simple, either indoor or outdoor.”
The Powerwall 2, which is a lithium ion battery (the same battery technology used in Tesla vehicles), can store energy gained from solar panels to ensure that even on cloudy or rainy days customers will be able to power their homes with the energy previously collected.
In 2006, Elon Musk co-founded Solar City with his cousins Lyndon and Peter Rive. Solar City is a solar panel company that engineers and develops solar panels as well as performs installations.
While solar panels are nothing new, Solar City is revolutionary in their design and marketing. The company will soon begin offering their new suite of solar roofs, which have four different types of solar “shingles” that will cost less than the price of a normal roof (when considering utility savings), all while allowing customers the freedom to generate their own energy and even profit off selling their surplus energy back to the electric companies.
The four styles of solar tiles available are Tuscan glass, smooth glass, textured glass, and slate glass. No longer are solar panels large cumbersome eyesores. Solar City’s designs are elegant and virtually unnoticeable. From the street, they appear opaque, while from above they are translucent.
Musk’s latest invention is the Hyperloop, a giant tube to be used for fast-paced mass transit. The concept would allow for commuters to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in only half an hour!
Musk’s hopes are that his invention would allow for commuting between major cities, decrease the need for flight travel (reducing carbon emissions), and be completely powered by renewable energy. The Hyperloop would send travelers in pods through low-pressure tubes at speeds over 700 mph!
If all of the above inventions and innovations aren’t enough, Musk has also been brainstorming publicly about AI, a submarine car, and building a tunnel under Los Angeles! Is there anything this man can’t do?