What young innovators can learn from Elon Musk: Don Pittis

University students have been inspired by Elon Musk. Part showman, part genius, he's captured the imagination of a generation. But can young Canadian innovators learn to replicate his formula?

Can Canadian university students turn their fascination into imitation?

Undergraduate students Arthur Cockfield and Marnus Coetsee, leaders of the 40-strong Queen's Hyperloop Design Team, are members of a generation inspired by former Queen's student Elon Musk. (Queen's Hyperloop Team)

By some measures, Elon Musk has never invented anything. And yet the president of Tesla and SpaceX has inspired a young generation of business and engineering students smitten by his glamorous profile and apparent success.

The question is whether students captivated by the larger-than-life entrepreneur's projects can learn from Musk's method of turning wild ideas into businesses, thereby helping reinvigorate the Canadian and global economies.

There is no question that the billionaire businessman is an object of fascination.

University clubs and associations around the world hold him up as a model, including at Queen's in Kingston, Ont., where Musk began his undergraduate education.
Queen's celebrates alumni Elon Musk even though he moved to a U.S. university after just two years. (Queen's Alumni Review)

After two years enrolled in a Queen's commerce program, Musk, a South African native whose mother's family farmed in Saskatchewan, moved on to a U.S. university. But Queen's has better bragging rights than M.I.T., where Musk quit after only two days to start his first serious business venture Zip2, selling his stake four years later for $22 million US.

"He's not a perfect person, but he's certainly inspiring," says third year Queen's engineering student Marnus Coetsee, whose family also hails from South Africa. "I'm not trying to be Elon Musk in any sense, but I will certainly listen to what he says to help and inspire me to achieve things I thought were never possible."

Waterloop Hyperloop

Along with business student Arthur Cockfield, Coetsee leads the 40-member Queen's Hyperloop Design Team. And Queen's is not unique.

Universities across Canada have teams (including the award-winning Waterloop — no points for guessing) joining university teams from the U.S., Australia, Japan, the Netherlands and Spain.
A concept image of what Canadian Hyperloop company TransPod's track system might look like in downtown Toronto. (TransPod Inc.)

All that brainpower is contributing to a project proposed by Musk in 2013 to make a low-friction high-speed vacuum tube train that will travel faster than airplanes, a scheme that critics have fallen over themselves to declare will never work. 

The students are undaunted, and Patti Derbyshire, Calgary-based founder of Torch Motorcycles and mentor to young entrepreneurs, says the wildness of Musk's ideas is part of his appeal.

Not new, revolutionary

There were electric cars before Tesla, batteries before the Powerwall and the Gigafactory, solar panels before Solar City and rocket launches before Musk's private sector space company SpaceX. The idea of vacuum tube transportation stretches back a century before Musk proposed the Hyperloop as an open-source business venture.

Musk's magic as an innovator and entrepreneur is to make crazy ideas seem like practical business ventures. 

"We love those things because they play on our imagination," says Derbyshire.
Tesla shares declined at the end of last week after Goldman Sachs downgraded the company. But since proving the all-electric car concept, Tesla has spurred competition from other automakers. (Reuters)

Like any leading-edge entrepreneur — only more so because of his risky projects and the glare of media attention — Musk's ventures always seem on the verge of blowing up, sometimes literally. But as with previous innovators, from James Watt to Alexander Graham Bell to Steve Jobs, Musk builds on existing technology but stands as a Zeitgeist, a spirit of the times, leading others forward.

Many scoffed at the early Telsa. Now the company's biggest threat is a flood of competition from established automakers.

Companies around the world, including in Russia, have announced Hyperloop plans.

SpaceX has given private sector space startups new credibility, including Canadian satellite company Kepler Communications, formed by a group of former University of Toronto students that recently got millions of dollars in private sector funding.

Kepler CEO Mina Mitry credits Musk with wrenching space technology out of the hands of giant corporations where, he says, smart young people would rather not work.

It is easy to dismiss Musk as a mere grandstander, especially after his most recent plan to colonize Mars. That said, coming from Musk the idea got huge media attention, including the entire science section in last week's Economist magazine.

Hyperloop to closed loop

Derbyshire says Musk's special talents include looking beyond himself to try to solve global problems, and motivating other smart people.

"The payoff isn't always money," she says, pointing to the altruistic impetus for so many of Musk's visionary schemes. And she says that in the business of innovation, coaxing support from financial backers is an essential part of the job.

"When Tesla was faltering, Elon Musk went back to those people and made those people believe again that a further investment would get that invention over the line," says Derbyshire.

Derbyshire, Chair of Entrepreneurship, Marketing & Social Innovation at Calgary's Mount Royal University, says the lessons learned from the Tesla and SpaceX boss go far beyond Hyperloop and space.
Mount Royal University grad Paul Shumlich has created the Calgary business Deepwater Farms growing fish, which produce the fertilizer for greenhouse vegetables. (Mount Royal University)

Salesmanship, tenacity, belief in your ability to succeed, thinking outside the box, risk taking, doing what at first blush might seem impossible, all while aiming products at the right consumer group that will eventually pay the bills, are essential tools of any entrepreneur, she says.​

One of her students, Paul Shumlich, graduated in April and already has funding for a major expansion of his startup Deepwater Farms, a scheme developed as a student to provide eight key fresh ingredients year-round to Calgary chefs.

Motivated partly by environmental concerns, his growing method uses water in a closed loop from fish production to fertilize organic herbs and vegetables, which in turn clean the water for the fish. He has customers for the fish and the greens.

Shumlich's inspiration? Elon Musk, whose example he says directed him toward sustainable, human-centred design.

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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.