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A Brief History of Elon Musk’s Companies

December 18, 2020 • April Miller

Elon Musk is one of the most captivating and controversial figures in business and technology today. When he’s not sounding the alarm on artificial intelligence, Musk busies himself with the daily operations and long-term planning at several companies, each focused on some aspect of advanced technology or transportation.

Elon Musk companies are not like other companies. Here’s a rundown of Elon Musk’s business ventures throughout the years and what he’s up to today.

Zip2

The first Elon Musk company was Zip2, founded in 1995 alongside his brother, Kimbal. After securing funding from angel investors, the brothers set about creating an internet-based city guide designed for the newspaper industry. The service contained maps, vector graphics, directions and yellow pages functionality.

The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and others signed contracts with Zip2. In 1998, Musk convinced Zip2’s board of directors to abandon a proposed merger with CitySearch. Instead, the following year, Compaq Computer Corp. purchased Zip2 for $307 million and turned it into AltaVista, a now-defunct search engine. Musk received $22 million for his 7% stake in the company.

X.com and PayPal

PayPal’s success is well-documented — the online payment service boasted 267 million accounts in 2018, with 9.9 billion individual transactions. However, not everybody knows about Elon Musk’s involvement with PayPal’s early days.

Musk founded X.com in 1999 as an online payment and financial services company using $10 million from selling his stake in Zip2. In just one year’s time, X.com merged with Confinity, which had a fledgling online money-transfer service called PayPal.

After the merger, the umbrella company changed its name to PayPal and the business model switched focus to facilitating online transactions.

Online auction site eBay purchased PayPal in 2002 in exchange for $1.5 billion in company stocks, of which Musk received $165 million.

SpaceX

Musk began developing SpaceX in 2001 from a concept called “Mars Oasis” — his idea to land a greenhouse on mars that would cultivate food crops on the Martian surface and reignite the public’s interest in space travel and exploration. Musk called the proposition “a positive, constructive, inspirational goal.”

The inception of SpaceX occurred in October 2001, when Musk, Adeo Ressi (a close college friend) and Jim Cantrell (a mechanical engineer) went to Moscow to purchase decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles, which they envisioned as ideal payload carriers for space missions.

It took $300 million of Musk’s personal fortune to breathe life into SpaceX, but it has since become a force that’s ignited the public imagination, just as its founder intended. Today, SpaceX is the world’s largest private manufacturer of rocket engines. It’s also been recognized for several space exploration milestones, such as achieving the highest-ever weight-to-thrust ratio for space-based rocket propulsion.

Tesla

Tesla is probably the most recognizable Elon Musk company, but there is some controversy over who founded it. Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning incorporated Tesla in 2003 after securing Series A funding primarily from Musk. Musk then became chairman for the board of directors.

Each of these individuals helped develop Tesla and its earliest products. However, a lawsuit brought by Eberhard against Musk in 2006 alleged that Musk had “forced” his former partner out of the company and attempted to “rewrite history” concerning the founding of the company.

The truth is more complicated, but it hasn’t dulled the excitement or momentum around Tesla’s electric automobile offerings. Tesla moved 376,500 cars in 2019, marking a new high watermark for the company.

Tesla began that year with a $702 million deficit, but Musk is on the record saying he’s not that concerned with profitability. He remains relentlessly focused on self-driving technology, clean electric cars and efficient transportation for all.

SolarCity

Musk’s cousins, Lyndon and Peter Rive, co-founded SolarCity in 2006 using capital and an initial concept provided by Elon. By 2013, the company had become the largest manufacturer of solar panels and solar power systems in the United States. Three years later, in 2016, Tesla acquired SolarCity and made it a fully subsidiary.

In the “Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan,” Musk is explicit about both Tesla’s and SolarCity’s raison d’etre — to fight global warming with smarter transportation and energy infrastructure.

SolarCity has made a name for itself not just with solar panels, but also with storage batteries. Tesla’s two “gigafactories” — one in Nevada and one in New York State — support SolarCity’s mission of building 500,000 automobiles per year and the equivalent of 54 GWh of solar power per facility.

Nevada’s gigafactory spans 5.3 million square feet, making it one of the largest structures in the world. And yet, the building still wasn’t complete as of early 2020. Musk’s critics and fans alike recognize these buildings as the dealmaker or -breaker for the company’s lofty ambitions.

OpenAI

Elon Musk is known to be outspoken when it comes to the implications and the potential threat of artificial intelligence. He’s on the record saying improperly conceived and regulated AI poses a more substantial threat to the human race than nuclear weapons.

This is why Musk created OpenAI in 2015. It’s a nonprofit company devoted to the ethical research of AI. As with SolarCity and Tesla, the mission behind the business is crystal clear and focused on securing a peaceful, equitable, sustainable future. According to Musk, the point of OpenAI is to:

“Counteract large corporations who may gain too much power by owning super-intelligence systems devoted to profits, as well as governments which may use AI to gain power and even oppress their citizenry.”

Musk left the company’s board of directors in 2018 to avoid potential conflicts of interest with his other companies. Notably, the Autopilot feature in Tesla’s self-driving cars rely on artificial intelligence developed through a program called Tesla Autopilot.

Neuralink

Next in the lineup of Elon Musk companies is Neuralink, co-founded by Musk in 2016 as a neurotechnology startup. It’s one of Musk’s more “out there” concepts, involving the merger of the human brain with computers and the mapping of the brain’s activity centers.

Neuralink, too, got its start as a hopeful antidote to the inherent dangers of “black box” AI. Merging humans with computers — to improve the senses, cognition and memory retention — could be a way to realize the benefits of computer intelligence without giving that intelligence a “will” of its own.

The Boring Company

Not every Elon Musk company was born of a long-gestating vision. The idea for The Boring Company (TBC) came to Musk one day while he was stuck in traffic in 2017. While at a standstill, Musk tweeted, “[I] am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging.” Thus, The Boring Company was born out of one man’s frustration with Los Angeles traffic.

Digging commenced the following month on a 50-foot-long, 30-foot wide “test trench” on the SpaceX campus. With the concept proven, by the end of 2018 TBC had successfully lobbied Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles for project approval for several operational tunnels.

TBC’s most recent boring machine, called Prufrock, reportedly went live on February 23 at an undisclosed location, boasting an order-of-magnitude increase in digging speed compared to previous TBC inventions. Soon, driverless and conventional cars will effortlessly navigate these tunnels and save drivers hundreds or thousands of hours apiece that would have been spent idling in traffic.

What the Future Holds

Elon Musk is not a perfect person, and in many ways his business empire is typical of the status quo. In September 2019, a California judge ruled that Musk and other Tesla executives had broken the law by sabotaging employee efforts to form a union.

Labor relations aside, it’s clear that Musk and his companies have their fingers on the pulse of technology, including and especially next-generation transportation technology. Each of these companies has left a lasting mark already, and it should prove exciting to see where the most recent project will take Musk and the rest of the world.

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