What young innovators can learn from Elon Musk: Don Pittis
Can Canadian university students turn their fascination into imitation?
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.
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."
Along with business student Arthur Cockfield, Coetsee leads the 40-member Queen's Hyperloop Design Team. And Queen's is not unique.
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.
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.
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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