When it comes to its Irish Research Council funding, it’s all about excellence in people, says Prof Alan Smeaton. He was speaking to us ahead of the Innovation Ireland Forum on Friday.
Dublin: 22.10.2014 01.00AM
SpaceX and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk at the Dublin Web Summit last night. Photo by Conor McCabe Photography
Elon Musk, billionaire investor and co-founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla, told the Dublin Web Summit last night that in 20 years’ time he would love to see a base established on Mars.
Responding to a question about his vision for humanity 20 years from now, Musk said: “What would be really great would be to have a base on Mars. That is the most powerful thing we can do to secure the long-term future of civilisation.
“I see a future where we are exploring the stars. The scope and scale of society will be that much greater. That’s a really exciting and inspiring future. We need things that are inspiring. There are lots of problems on Earth but these things inspire me and make me want to get out of bed in the morning. I see a bright future in space.”
Musk (42) appeared on stage at the Dublin Web Summit alongside Ireland’s Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD, and Shervin Pishevar, the co-founder and co-CEO of Sherpa Global.
South Africa-born Musk established PayPal in 1999 and sold it three years later to eBay for US$1.5bn in stock. This was followed by SpaceX in 2002, with US$100m of his own fortune which was awarded a US$1.6bn NASA contract in 2008 to develop its Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft. In 2009, SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket became the first privately funded vehicle to put a satellite into Earth’s orbit and NASA has selected SpaceX to be part of the first programme that entrusts private companies to deliver cargo to the International Space Station in a deal worth potentially up to US$3.1bn.
Musk is also known as co-founder of Tesla Motors, the innovative company behind the Roadster and Model S electric vehicles. He is understood to have a 32pc stake in Tesla, which was valued at US$5.2bn this year.
On stage, Kenny reminded Musk how Henry Ford located a division of the Ford Motor Company in Cork. “If you’re looking for a good base …” the Taoiseach trailed.
While appearing a little uncomfortable with the platitudes he was receiving on stage, Musk painted a picture of himself as an unlikely entrepreneur, despite spending his teens coding video games. “When I was 21, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. But when I was in college I started looking at the problems of the world, and there were five things, three of which I thought were definitely possible to solve – internet, sustainable energy and space.”
When asked why space, Musk said what motivated him was the expectation that there would be a manned mission to Mars. “We went to the moon but there was no base on the moon. I thought there would be space hotels and missions to Mars. That didn’t happen. At first I thought maybe people lost the will to do that and I came up with this idea to get people excited to do that stuff again.
“I came to the conclusion that I was wrong, there is plenty of will in the world but making sure there is a way without bankrupting the economy …
“I think we can do as much as we can to advance that. I’m not saying we will take people to Mars but we can take things as far as possible.”
Asked about 20 years from now and his vision for humanity, Musk said: “What would be really great would be to have a base on Mars – a self-sustaining civilisation on Mars.”
While to many Musk appears to have the Midas touch in that everything appears easy and turns to gold, he pointed out that risk, stress and frustrations a real part of his existence.
He said that for SpaceX, the low points were between 2007 and 2009, when the first three launches of the SpaceX rockets didn’t work. “We had three failures in a row and despite having a lot of capital at first, after three launches we were barely able to scrape enough to do a launch. In late 2008 it worked, but it was our last chance. It was a white-knuckle flight. When it succeeded I didn’t feel elated … stress relief, that was all.”
The same pressures existed at Tesla around the same time. “At Tesla we were racing around in 2008 and we were barely able to raise money from existing investors and I put everything I had for Tesla. We closed at 6pm on Christmas Eve 2008 … we would have gone bankrupt six days later.”
In order for SpaceX to be successful, Musk said the company, while private, can’t continue to be an outsider in terms of the official space industry establishment. “In order for SpaceX to be successful it has to become a part of the system, it can’t be an outsider forever. We believe it is important to develop an interplanetary transport technology, but I don’t want to compromise the fundamental goals of the organisation in order to become an insider.”
As lofty as Musk’s goals are for space, his dreams of transport systems on Earth turf including electronic cars and hyperloop trains capable of shuttling people between cities hundreds of miles apart within minutes are equally ambitious.
When asked about how difficult it has been to convince the American nation – known for its love of the gasoline car – to embrace the idea of an electric car, Musk responded it was tricky at first.
“The first thing is to try and create a car that changes the perception of an electronic vehicle, that’s why we went with the Tesla Roadster electric sports car. In order for it to be successful it had to have great acceleration, handling and capable of a long range in order to change the perception.
“It was slow going at first and if I had a dollar for every time someone mentioned Delorean I would have given up the idea. But by making a product that was initially a demonstration into the Roadster, that led to the high-level production of the Model S saloon.
“This year the top reviewers are giving it the best rating for a car. This year has been a turning point but there is a huge way to go. There are 100m new cars produced every year, adding to the existing base of 1.8bn cars – it will take at least 20 years to replace the fleet.”
Parrying the inevitable comparisons with the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Musk said there were characteristics that matter in innovators and leaders. “Steve Jobs was product focused down to the little details. He and other people tried very hard, they had light-bulb things happening … that’s what we are trying to do with the Model S, focus on every detail to bring joy to the owner of the car.”
In good news for potential owners of Tesla cars in Ireland, Musk said a right-hand drive version of the car will begin production in March or April.
When asked for pointers for Ireland on the digital frontier, Musk quipped he “hadn’t thought about the digital stuff for a while” but had some points for Kenny to consider.
“You need to create a concentration of talent, like a sports team, so focus talent on a particular area. A company is a group of people who get together to create a product or service by focusing their energies. From a regulatory and tax standpoint, there are supports for start-ups all the way to being medium-stage companies. Where companies often fail to make it, though, is not at the beginning but at the intermediate stage.
“When a new company is born it is going up against established companies and is seeking credibility.”
Kenny responded by pointing to Ireland’s new focus on areas like big data, logistics, better supports for small firms and the fact Ireland has enviable demographics in terms of a young population for the next 25 years.
Musk responded with a jaw-dropping idea: “I think for technology companies you need engineers. Encouraging the study of engineering in Irish universities would be really powerful … perhaps consider offering free engineering tuition.”
He also encouraged Ireland to do more around start-up visas and encouraging talent to come to Ireland from anywhere in the world. “You need a concentration of talent,” he said.
In a piece of advice to young, potential entrepreneurs, Musk emphasised the importance of taking risks, even if your gut is telling you it’s the right thing to do but your head is telling you it is irrational.
“The culture of fear is irrational, but even if it’s rational and the stake is worth it, it’s still worth proceeding.
“Creating a company and doing something new – rather than by reason or by analogy – get as much critical feedback from friends. Even if you have to coax it out of them – get it out of them.”
Illustrations by Think Visual