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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 18 September, 2014

Elon Musk’s advice to Enda Kenny on fostering Ireland’s digital economy

His three top tips: Encourage engineering courses in university, support start-ups better, develop talent.

Elon Musk with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the closing panel of the Web Summit this evening.
Elon Musk with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the closing panel of the Web Summit this evening.

INVENTOR, ENGINEER AND entrepreneur Elon Musk is a busy man – but he spared a few minutes to give Taoiseach Enda Kenny advice on how to move forward Ireland’s digital economy.

Musk, who is now CEO and CTO of SpaceX and CEO of Tesla Motors, was a late addition to the Web Summit line-up in Dublin. He sat on a panel today, chaired by Storyful’s Mark Little, which included Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Musk’s friend and co-founder of Sherpa Global, an investor fund and mentorship structure for start-ups, Shervin Pishevar.

When asked by Little if he had advice for Enda Kenny to drive forward Ireland as a leader in digital industry, Musk broke it down into three top tips:

1. Talent: “The most important thing in creating companies is you need a concentration of talent. It’s like creating a world sports team or something, you really want to focus your talent on a particular area.”

2. Support for start-ups: “Make sure that from a regulatory standpoint – regulations in taxation and government support – that it’s there for start-up companies, and that it goes from start-up all the way through to the medium phase of the company. Because where most companies tend to not make it is not so much at that very beginning stage, but it’s at that intermediate stage.”

“When a new company if formed you are going up against established companies with credibility and it’s incredibly important that companies are nourished through that stage. It’s like a sapling growing in a giant redwood forest. You have these huge companies, if you don’t give them a little bit of sunlight and nutrition, it’s game over.”

3. Develop more engineers: “For technology companies, you need engineers. To the degree that that can be encouraged of that course of study at Irish universities. I think that would be really powerful.

Like, maybe engineering could be tuition-free or something like that. But then tie it to they’ve got to stay in Ireland – they can’t just bail. It’s like, free engineering tuition but you’ve got to hang out and create your company here. I think that kind of thing would be effective in creating technology companies.”

The Taoiseach managed to make the hard sell to Musk on jobs in a different sector, however, encouraging Musk to bring part of his Tesla electric car-building project to Ireland.

The panel had arrived at the side of the main stage in one of Musk’s new Tesla cars, which – as this Twitter user pointed out – had an air of retro about it:

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Kenny told Musk that Henry Ford had chosen Cork as the centre of production for his cars 100 years ago. “So if you’re looking for a good base, we’ll give you an opportunity… We’ll give you a fair hearing and our workers will not let you down, I promise you that.”

Later, he returned to the topic, when Little said a suggestion had been made via Twitter that Musk might bring Space X to Shannon. Kenny said: “This man, either of you (indicating Pishevar), are welcome here anytime.

Elon, we’re a different kind of people. The personality of our people has been known around the world for centuries. We’re open, pragmatic, work very hard, we’re not afraid of that. The young talent we have in this country, really, the essence of which has been here all week speaks for itself about their imaginative capacity to change the world for the future.

Whether Musk takes the carrot or not, he spoke of his fondness for Ireland, having visited here as a 7-year-old. Shervin Pishevar said that he had the idea for Sherpa while standing on the Cliffs of Moher, on a previous trip to Ireland for an earlier Web Summit. “Ireland has actually changed my life,” he said.

Musk’s achievements, however, were centre stage as he spoke of his desire with his SpaceX rocket and spacecraft engineering to see humanity eventually make a self-sustaining base on Mars.

The Taoiseach mentioned as an aside: “If you’re going to send that spacecraft off to Mars, I’ve a few people I could put on it for you as well.” He didn’t elaborate on who exactly he might put in the rocket.

Musk spoke about the need to try, try and try again – the first three launches of the rocket at SpaceX didn’t work and it was only in late 2008 that the fourth did work.

“That was our last chance. (If it didn’t work) game over,” he said. “When it succeeded, I didn’t feel elation, I felt stress relief.”

Musk showed similar tenacity when trying to raise money to engineer the electric car into a form that would be acceptable to consumers and really work – he said he was just days away from bankruptcy before managing to scrape together enough money from existing investors and even his friends.

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Kenny said: “The lessons we can learn from this weekend are that we have to have a culture of not being afraid that something will fail.” Musk said there is a “fear of failure” in Silicon Valley but Pishevar (pictured above) agreed with the Taoiseach saying, “Fear is finite, hope is infinite. We are afraid of failure but we’re not afraid of trying.”

On convincing the US to embrace the electric car, Musk said: “It was tricky at first. We are going against the pre-conception of what the electric car was which was literally a golf cart.”

A right-hand drive version of the car is due to go on sale in late March or early April.

“That car would sell very well in Ireland,” concluded Kenny.

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