Like a modern day Howard Hughes, South African born Elon Musk is happy to take on incumbent interests in two industries and think he can win. Having made his fortune from PayPal - defeating the banking industry online - he is now operating along with Boeing as the sole US cargo provider to the Space Station with his project X space programme, and has a brand new Tesla electric vehicle on the market.
Speaking last night at a James Martin School event 'The Future of Energy' and Transport' at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, he was introduced by Professor Ian Goldin - who provided the link as both went to the same high school in Pretoria. Also there were University Vice-Chancellors, the Astronomer Royal Martin Rees and Richard Dawkins.
Surrounded by Oxford spendour and eminence the discussion looked to the stars more than the practical issues of transport. Perhap it wasn't the occasion for Elon to play the part of the car saleman, but the debate did seem to dream a little too far into the future for me.
In running two companies his workload is distilled down to the least appealing bits, he said, but he must have quite a lot fun with all those toys to play with...
Elon Musk (born 28 June 1971) is a South Africa-born American entrepreneur and inventor best known for founding SpaceX, and co-founding Tesla Motors and PayPal(initially known as X.com). While at those companies, he oversaw the construction of the Tesla Roadster, a private rocket and spaceship successor to the Space Shuttle known as Falcon 9/Dragon, and the world's largest Internet payment system, PayPal. He is currently the CEO and Chief Designer of SpaceX, CEO and Product Architect of Tesla Motors and Chairman of SolarCity.
Bearing his personal number plates the only Tesal Model S currently in Europe was the celebrity draw on Broad Street, while inside the famous theatre, mostly to an audience of startstruck physics post-grads it looked like, the interest was his dreams of colonising Mars and rocket powered dreams.
Referring to his physics background, Elon said his approach to difficult issues is, when metaphorical answers don't suggest the answers - eg what have others tried - to go back to first pricinples - ie what are the essential elements. An example of this being reducing weight in his launch vehicles.
Before entering a market he will also "determine if success is one of the possibilities".
Upon graduating, his choice was a job in Wall Street or to carry on researching "super-capacitors" (where he thought a likely outcome after 6 years could well be failure). Instead he chose Silicon Valley; which led to starting PayPal - that's was in turn sold to Ebay. Today, it's the bit of Ebay that makes money.
His current Falcon rocket, is due to be superceeded by the Falcon Heavy to have 60% of the thrust of the Saturn V - of the Apollo project from the age of exploration to which Elon wishes to return. The design after that would be a fully re-usable rocket.
While only briefly talking about the Tesla project, Elon said he started with a sports car design since in selling at low volume any design would be at least $70,000.
He hopes to sell future models at half the initial price.
As, in his words, Lithium Ion battery technology performance is improving at 8-9% per year he predicted that in future that all ground transport will be electric powered.
He even plans for an electric, supersonic, VTOL jet - which would require a battery energy density of 500kW/kg.
It's the way of the future.
If only Sci-fi fans had known that Robert Llewellyn, aka Kryten, was outside trying not to set off the car alarm of Elon's Tesla.
It was nice to meet Robert, as well as Faye Sunderland of the Greencar Website. Unfortunately, I think Nicky Gordon-Bloomfield's Nissan Leaf couldn't quite get her to Oxford.
Here's a quick video of Elon's Tesla pulling away....
Photo set of Elon Musk at the James Martin School event 'The Future of Energy' and Transport' at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford