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Elon Musk

PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk is no golden boy. Despite his wild success, he has almost lost it all on a number of occasions, but his willingness to take risks is now transforming the automotive and space industries.

Elon Musk has an uncanny ability to bring simple solutions to seemingly complex problems. How do you shatter misperceptions about electric cars as sluggish and impractical? Simple, build the sleek, 248-horsepower Tesla Roadster with a 250-mile range. What about capitalizing on the growing commercialization of space? Build a rocket that is cheaper and more reliable than anything else on the market.When Musk talks about something, even colonizing Mars, you probably want to take him seriously.

Since making his first millions selling his start-up to eBay, the ambitious billionaire has shaken up the automotive and space industries. Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in June 2002. His third company, the start-up develops and manufactures low-cost space launch vehicles. The company recently deployed its first communications satellite aboard its 244-foot Falcon 9 rocket and was the first private company to send a cargo payload to the International Space Station on its unmanned Dragon space capsule as a part of a $1.6 billion deal with NASA.

Launched only a year after SpaceX with associates Martin Eberhard, Marc Tarpenning, JB Straubel, and Ian Wright, Tesla Motors is Musk’s second baby. The electric car designer and manufacturer first gained widespread notoriety after producing the Tesla Roadster, the first fully electric sports car. The roadster shattered preconceptions about electric cars in the industry and has ushered the way for the development of the Model S sedan and the Model X, a full-size crossover utility vehicle unveiled last year.

While internet start-ups have made many a millionaire, the choice of betting it all in the automotive and space industries was not a given. Musk, however, has completely recast the future of these industries, revitalizing what were once considered ailing American industries. With SpaceX, the United States is set to become highly competitive once again in the multi-billion dollar space launch industry and Tesla Motors has affirmed the country’s position as a global leader in the emerging electric car market.

Explaining his fascination with space travel to Popular Mechanics, Musk soberly speculated that, “the probability of human civilization lasting for a long time is much greater if we’re on multiple planets.” Clearly, such fantastical thinking is not the point of departure for most entrepreneurs, but Musk’s investment strategy has the advantage of being straightforward. The amateur futurologist asked himself in college: “Well, what are the most significant problems humanity faces?” The three that came to his mind were space exploration, the internet and clean energy.

It was at the age of 12 that the 42 year-old South African-native struck his first business deal when he made $500 selling the code for a “Space Invaders”-style video game he invented. It was this entrepreneurial thirst that pushed him to leave his home town Pretoria to the consternation of his parents. He first debarked in the United States in 1992 to pursue his bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business after spending two years at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.

After finishing his undergraduate degree, Musk began a doctoral program in physics at Stanford University before dropping out several days after the beginning of classes to pursue his many budding business ventures. It was shortly after in 1999 that he founded the company that would become PayPal, a system that allows anyone with an e-mail address to send money to anyone else with an e-mail address. In 2002, the company was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion, a lucrative deal from which Musk pocketed some $165 million.

It might be tempting to see Musk as a sort of golden boy entrepreneur that brings success to everything he touches. His career, however, has been tumultuous and he has flirted with complete financial ruin on several occasions. With such ambitious goals, he has had few opportunities to hedge his bets, putting his entire personal fortune at stake with each of his ventures. If the Tesla Model S or the SpaceX Dragon had failed, Musk says that his companies would simply not have survived.

In his personal life as well, Musk has a reputation of something of a party boy and habitual risk taker. His six-bedroom Bel-Air mansion is home to an extensive collection of sports cars and he once owned a L39 Soviet military jet. Musk embraces this reputation, but has sold the old Soviet jet, saying, “I wasn’t all that sure about the safety.” Having children, “definitely reduces my willingness to do risky things,” he admits. He now has five boys – twins Griffin and Xavier and triplets Kai, Damian and Saxon.

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