Elon Musk understands that an idea is just that, until it's made into something.
Not to get too fanboy-ish, but Elon Musk is a pretty remarkable guy. He’s hailed as a Silicon Valley celebrity; self-made billionaire, engineer, visionary; and a real-life Tony Stark (from the Iron Man comic-book series).
Some say he’s steering the history of technology. That might be a bit of a stretch, but he has an incredible ability to develop technologies that could potentially change industry and our lifestyles. Tesla made the electric car cool. SpaceX makes rocket ships reusable.
He’s known for labouring over minute details, such as the disappearing door handles on Tesla’s Model S (which drove his engineers insane), the odd temper tantrum and rage-fuelled firings. Yet those elements of his character drive his “willingness to tackle impossible things,” as described by Ashlee Vance in his biography Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a fantastic future.
Vance also describes the “unified theory of Musk,” in which all of businesses are connected in the short and long term. Tesla produces battery packs for Solar City, the solar panel installer. Meanwhile, Solar City provides Tesla with solar panels for its vehicle charging stations. Tesla and SpaceX exchange knowledge about materials, manufacturing techniques and operating efficiencies.
Musk understands that an idea is just that, until it’s made into something.
Electric vehicles weren’t sexy or on track to be popular with consumers who didn’t see them as competitive with the power and stylish appearance of traditionally produced combustion engine vehicles. Tesla managed to deliver style and power. And no one, including NASA, had ever made a rocket that could return to Earth. SpaceX did it, albeit not before a few catastrophic failures, spectacular mid-air explosions and a few hundred million dollars going up in smoke.
Back on Earth, watch for Tesla’s Model 3, which should bring the electric car to the masses at $35,000, compared to the $100,000 price tag of the Model S (or $130,000 for a Model X SUV).
He’s also aware of the benefits of collaboration and public-sector partnerships, even if he’s not always happy to admit it. It’s likely Tesla wouldn’t be around today had it not received a $465 million loan from the US government in 2010 to commercialize the Model S.
And the Hyperloop, high-speed transportation system wouldn’t have come as far as it has without the collaboration of engineering students from around the world. A Space-X sponsored design competition, won by MIT, attracted more than 1,000 participants, tasked with designing a subscale transport pod. It’s an example of collaborative innovation at its finest, no matter how far off the technology is from implementation.
Yes, Musk has some superior (perhaps savant-esque) qualities and abilities, but great innovation isn’t just the domain of the brilliant.
Canadian manufacturing struggles with innovation. Lagging investment, weak collaborative efforts and general foot-dragging are all factors that account for Canada trailing its key competitors. The Conference Board of Canada concluded in a 2013 report that Canada was in desperate need of smart investment in skills and innovation to enhance its productivity and competitiveness.
Yet there are Canadian companies that get innovation. Examples include Clearpath Robotics, which develops autonomous robots for industrial applications; or Vanhawks, which aims to make urban cycling safer with its “connected” Valour bicycle; and Aeryon Labs, which is producing drones for multiple uses. Viryl Technologies, the focus of this issue’s cover story, is responding to a spike in vinyl record demand by developing a new, automated pressing machine that’s an alternative to increasingly rare vintage machinery.
Musk has a knack for innovations that have global impact, but innovation can also be great if it changes your company’s world by addressing a product development or production need with a solution that offers something different or better. It’s all about bringing ideas to life.