“It’s a good time to be Elon Musk,” Bloomberg wrote last week, summing up sentiment towards the real-life inspiration for the modern rendition of Iron Man’s Tony Stark.
The depiction of the fictional billionaire from the super-hero movies is known to be based on Pretoria’s most famous innovator, and he even had a cameo role in the second movie. Stark, the genius playboy entrepreneur, lives a glorious life of unending business success, while creating remarkable new technologies that have world-changing potential. Never before has art imitated life so closely.
“Shares of Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors have surged 40% since 1 December, putting the stock within reach of a 52-week high,” Bloomberg wrote. “The acquisition of SolarCity is complete. Musk’s sprawling Gigafactory is now producing battery cells. And the clean-energy evangelist has the ear of a surprising fellow in Washington: US President Donald Trump.”
With Trump’s plan to create more jobs in the US, Musk’s various companies are already doing that. Electric car maker Tesla – which sold 76,230 cars last year, although it had targeted 80,000 – employs 25,000 workers in California, where SpaceX is also headquartered. After an explosion last September grounded launches – and destroyed an estimated US$200m satellite for Facebook – a Falcon 9 rocket last month successfully deployed 10 satellites.
The Gigafactory – for which Tesla has partnered with Panasonic – will soon be the world’s largest factory, producing cells to power cars, including the new mass-market $35,000 Model 3, as well as the Powerwall aimed at the home market. Tesla aims to sell 500,000 of this model by 2018, a seemingly impossible task that Musk is renowned for setting for his businesses. This battery production is crucial for that model, as it is Musk’s unified plan for solar power. The $5bn Gigafactory in Reno, Nevada, is currently a third of the size it will be when completed, and by next year is expected to double the global supply of lithium ion batteries. It’s crucial for bringing down the overall cost of the batteries for Tesla’s cars, and for realising Musk’s greater green dream.
By buying SolarCity, in which Musk was the largest shareholder and his cousins the management team, Musk can now cater for both the growing markets in electric cars and taking homes off the electric grid. Last year he unveiled roof tiles that include solar panels, demonstrating this combined vision.
“Elon is a paragon of enthusiasm, good humour and curiosity — a Renaissance man in an era that needs them,” Iron Man director Jon Favreau wrote about Musk when he was included in Time’s 100 most influential people list in 2010. Looking for inspiration for the Stark character, actor Robert Downey Jr told Favreau: “We need to sit down with Elon Musk.” Favreau wrote: “He was right.”
Musk is an inspirational figure, as Virgin founder Richard Branson wrote about Musk in the same list for 2013: “Whatever skeptics have said can’t be done, Elon has gone out and made real”. Amusingly, Musk profiled singer Kanye West in the 2015 edition.
For all these reasons, while the CEOs of Microsoft, Uber, Apple, and Google are up in arms about Trump’s controversial ban on immigrants, Musk is seemingly alone amongst America’s tech titans for his convivial relationship with Trump, on whose advisory panel he sits. This, despite the irony, that Musk himself is an immigrant.
This column first appeared on Financial Mail