Elon Musk on a Mission to Save Mankind

Ashlee Vance, author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, speaking at the Council

Elon Musk, according to Ashlee Vance, is a unique individual, the most innovative entrepreneur around in terms of combining hardware and software, a person who is almost devoid of personal empathy and is legendary for treating his staff horribly, but someone who at the same time has enormous empathy for mankind, and worries constantly about mankind's future. "He was a kid who consumed science fiction books," said Vance, who has just published a book on Musk - Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. "Lots of kids read sci fi novels and accept them as stories - but it wasn't just a fantasy for Elon - for him they were logical." He wants to shift car transportation to zero emissions, get energy from solar power and - most ambitiously, establish human colonies on Mars so that the human species will be multi-planetary and could survive a catastrophe on Earth. And yet, despite his current net worth of some $13 billion, the award-winning Model S Tesla sedan, and the Falcon rockets that are the only privately-owned space ships to resupply the International Space Station, Musk could still go bankrupt - such is his appetite for risk.

Vance told a lunch of LAWAC members and guests that even getting Musk to talk to him for the book was an ordeal. Initially he refused to be interviewed at all, but after Vance had interviewed some two hundred of his friends, former employees and others, Musk relented and invited Vance to dinner in Silicon Valley. After a brief warm-up, Musk simply said "why don't we have dinner once a month until you have what you need?"

Musk was reluctant to talk much about his childhood in South Africa - "he was a loner, he was bullied, he had a rough life at home with his dad," but he didn't want to open up about his father. At 17 he emigrated to Canada, and then moved down to the US. In 1995 he started his first company, Zip2, a software company that provided city guides to newspapers, and "was horrible to work with," according to Vance. "He had grown up as a kind of a know-it-all - when his software engineers went home at night he would go in and change all their code." Musk has improved since then, although he still doesn't suffer fools gladly, and at one point challenged an employee for choosing to attend the birth of his child instead of coming in to work that day.

Having made $200m from the sale of his second company, PayPal, Musk then invested it all "in the equivalent of a money-destroying machine" - a new car company (Tesla) and a rocket company (SpaceX). "He has an insane tolerance for risk," said Vance. Having nearly gone bankrupt in 2008, Musk managed to get a key new round of financing for Tesla by pretending that he was going to put all the money in by himself - even though he had nothing of his own left. "He completely bluffed all the Tesla investors - by saying he had enough money to do the next round of funding himself, the investors got greedy and didn't want him to do it all." Tesla survived, SpaceX got its fourth (and potentially last) launch into space, and in the last seven years Musk has prospered. "But now he is prepared to risk it all again, by sinking money from Tesla into his new battery factory" - the $5bn "gigafactory" that Musk has begun building in Nevada. "He is betting everything again - Tesla could go bankrupt before the third generation car comes out," said Vance.

Vance said that one of the pecularities of Musk was the way he could think graphically. "Since he was a young kid, he would go into this place in his head where he could envisage 3D objects in detail. When he was a kid his parents thought he was deaf, because he would sit with a vacant gaze on his face and not respond." At one point they had his adenoids removed to "improve" his hearing. Musk can still think like this, but says it is getting harder for him to do so. "But still you can be sitting with him at a table over dinner and this glazed look will come over his face, and you know his mind has gone somewhere else."

Musk has some controversial views, believing that smart people should procreate more than dumb people, according to Vance. "He also looks to be where the action is - he turns up at the Kentucky Derby, big fights - that is why he came to LA," instead of Silicon Valley, so he can be around the celebrity culture. And now he has billions of dollars, five children, three divorces (twice from the same woman, the English actress Talulah Riley) and two front page-grabbing companies in cars and space. And he is too busy to be a celebrity himself.