His startup ideas always sound impossible. That might be why they work.
Elon Musk is launching a new company, and the idea sounds totally crazy. That sentence could have been written in 2002, when he founded SpaceX; in 2004, when he joined Tesla; or even in 1999, when he founded X.com. All three of those ventures sounded insane at the outset. All three, in different ways, led to tremendously successful businesses.
This time, we’re told, the concept may be his craziest yet. Confirming a Wall Street Journal report from last month, the explainer site Wait But Why on Thursday laid out Musk’s vision for a company called Neuralink whose goal is nothing less grandiose than to change the fundamental nature of human communication forever. Its plan is to embed computer chips in our brains that will eventually facilitate what Musk calls “consensual telepathy” between people. This could make possible an era in which people beam thoughts and images directly into one another’s minds, obviating the need for language. And that’s a good thing, Musk tells Wait But Why’s Tim Urban, because superintelligent A.I. is coming, and we’re going to need to be way smarter if we want to stop the machines from taking over the world and subjugating the human race. Whew!
If that sounds like science fiction, it really is. It’s fair to say that mainstream publications like the Wall Street Journal wouldn’t take this sort of thing seriously if it came from just about anyone but Musk, who has an unparalleled track record of turning the seemingly impossible into reality. Already skeptics have emerged to argue persuasively that Musk’s latest promise is unlikely to come true.
So why should we take it seriously? The answer lies in Musk’s approach to startups—not so much “think big, start small” as “think humongous, start big.”
In every case, Musk has set out to tackle what he believes to be one of humanity’s greatest problems, articulating a long-term strategy that involves a lot of speculation about the distant future. Yet in every case, he also has had a far more realistic, if still audacious, short- to medium-term plan that relies on technology that is just over the horizon, if not already available. Those are his real business plans.
In the case of Neuralink, Musk’s talk of telepathy and robot uprisings has dominated the early press coverage. But he once again has a much more plausible and much less sexy intermediate goal that you might have missed amid the more fanciful extremes of his lofty sales pitch—not to mention in media coverage both credulous and skeptical. Long before it tries to mess with any healthy person’s brain, Neuralink plans to develop a device to help treat people with serious brain injuries. As Musk tells Urban:
The first use of the technology will be to repair brain injuries as a result of stroke or cutting out a cancer lesion, where somebody’s fundamentally lost a certain cognitive element. It could help with people who are quadriplegics or paraplegics by providing a neural shunt from the motor cortex down to where the muscles are activated.
It’s understandable that this part of Musk’s plan has been reported as an afterthought. Musk himself framed it that way. But don’t be surprised if Neuralink 10 years from now is known not as the consensual-telepathy company, but as a leader in medical devices for the brain.
Think about Tesla and SpaceX, which we know today primarily as an electric-car company and an aerospace manufacturer. Tesla is a publicly traded company with a market capitalization of about $50 billion. SpaceX is private but has been valued at $15 billion. Both are prized for their growth potential, but they’re already serious, established businesses with tangible products and big revenue streams.
All of which makes it easy to forget that, 12 years ago, they sounded about as far-fetched as Neuralink does today.
Musk founded SpaceX with the modest goal of colonizing Mars and making human beings an interplanetary civilization, to hedge against the existential threat of a global extinction event. It’s the kind of startup idea that seems less likely to raise venture capital than to raise questions about its founder’s mental health.
But Musk differentiated early on between his short-, medium-, and long-range plans for the company. He didn’t start by drawing up plans for the Martian colonial government. Rather, he devoted the company’s first few years to figuring out how to build a functional rocket. Once he did that, his plan was to keep building better and cheaper spacecraft, with the stated aim of “revolutionizing the cost of space travel.” That’s still a big goal, but it’s hardly a crazy one. Importantly, it’s a goal that implies a legitimate business plan: to win government contracts for supply runs to the International Space Station. Having accomplished that, SpaceX is gearing up for its first manned space mission. It’s still a long way from colonizing Mars. But Musk and his SpaceX team will have accomplished a lot even if they never get there.
Musk’s early master plan for Tesla was only slightly less outlandish. At a time when electric cars had been written off by many as a technological dead end, the mere idea of an electric-car startup seemed quixotic. Yet Musk’s goal wasn’t just to build and sell electric vehicles.
The company’s overarching purpose, he wrote in a 2006 manifesto, was “to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy.” Got that? Tesla was a company founded to transform the economy and get the world off fossil fuels. Electric cars just happened to be the first step in that plan.
Again, Musk executed it methodically, in distinct stages. First, the company developed and built the motor for a high-performance electric sports car, using an existing model, the Lotus Elise. This was never going to be a big seller. But thanks to its novelty, it found a niche market among Silicon Valley tycoons and Hollywood celebrities. That laid the groundwork for the acclaimed Model S, a luxury sedan priced to compete with the likes of Mercedes and Audi, which in turn drove huge demand for Tesla’s first mass-market vehicle, the forthcoming Model 3. Now, with pre-orders pouring in, Tesla is branching out in several directions: developing self-driving cars, acquiring a solar power company, inventing products for home energy storage, and building the world’s largest electric-battery factory.
For all that, the “solar electric economy” that Musk envisioned more than a decade ago still seems remote. But Tesla has already driven us a good distance in that direction, and in the meantime, it’s a thriving business.
It’s still possible, of course, that SpaceX and Tesla will someday fulfill Musk’s original visions for them. Yet on the time scales we typically use to evaluate startups, it almost doesn’t matter. Musk sets his sights so high that he could fall far short and still emerge with a tremendously successful enterprise. For anyone else, these companies would constitute more than a life’s work.
The same is true of X.com, which Musk founded in 1999 with the goal of upending the banking system by building a full-service online financial institution. It soon merged with a competitor that was focused on allowing people to send money to each other on their Palm Pilots. That product, PayPal, became a hit, and Musk was eventually ousted and replaced PayPal’s creator, Peter Thiel. PayPal never became quite what Musk had in mind, yet it grew into a huge business and gave Musk the seed money to start SpaceX.
Viewed against this backdrop, Neuralink looks like a much different proposition than it might seem from the initial press reports. Sure, it’s conceivable that someday it will enable telepathy. And Musk might really view it as a new frontier in human communication and an essential weapon in the coming battle between humans and our robot would-be overlords. But that doesn’t mean anyone else has to look at it that way.
For all practical purposes, we can regard Musk’s long-term founding vision for his companies as akin to an origin myth—a tale he tells about them in order to imbue his ventures with a deeper meaning.
This serves multiple purposes. For Musk, it clarifies the problem he’s trying to solve and gives him a sense of purpose in addressing it. Crucially, it also inspires some of the brightest and most ambitious people in any given field to join him, because those kinds of people like to think they’re working on transformative, world-changing problems. One of the most underappreciated ingredients of Musk’s success has been his ability to attract engineers and designers brilliant enough to turn his whiteboard sketches into reality. Finally, it stirs up levels of hype that ensure Musk’s companies more publicity than they could ever gin up through conventional marketing strategies. (There’s a reason you don’t see a lot of Tesla commercials on TV.)
As a headline, “Musk Launches Medical Device Company to Treat Brain Injuries” doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Elon Musk Is Seriously Starting a Telepathy Company.” But chances are it will hold up better when we look back on it in a decade. Performing brain surgery on healthy people to augment their intelligence with A.I. may or may not be fantasy, but medical neural implants are not science fiction at all. These sorts of devices already exist in research labs around the world. What Musk is really doing, then, is attempting to commercialize the technology by making these chips much cheaper and more capable than they are today.
That in itself won’t be easy, as MIT Technology Review’s Antonio Regalado explains. Even if it works, it may not be a huge business, since the market is limited to people with brain conditions serious enough to justify the invasive implantation procedure. But it could certainly be a viable one. There weren’t exactly mainstream consumer markets for space rockets or $100,000 electric sports cars, either. If that works—if Neuralink becomes the leader in neural implants—then it’s not a stretch to think that a man as resourceful as Musk, working with some of the best scientists and engineers in the field, could develop all sorts of new applications for the technology over time, including but hardly limited to “consensual telepathy.” The initial gadgets would pay the bills while investors clamored to get in on the world’s hottest medical device company.
It’s possible, of course, that Neuralink will go nowhere. Most startups fail, after all. Musk himself has had some other heavily hyped ideas that have not so far led to stunning achievements. He famously proposed the Hyperloop, a hypothetical superspeed mass-transit system, but has so far avoided putting much of his own time or money into the idea. He also recently announced he’s starting a tunnel-boring concern, though its scale and ambitions remain unclear. Apparently he does have a filter, after all—and Neuralink passed through it.
There’s just one problem with ignoring the big story Musk tells whenever he starts a new company and focusing on the short-term business plan. The problem is that Tesla and SpaceX are still less than 15 years old—and Musk is still just 45. Today, it seems fair enough to say that they’re not really about ending fossil-fuel consumption and colonizing Mars, respectively. But give the man and his teams another decade or two, and maybe I’ll be the one who looks naïve for doubting that he was fulfilling his grand master plan all along.