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The X factor driving a serial inventor

Among his many ventures and titles, Mr Musk is CEO of SpaceX which aims to set up a colony on Mars by 2040.
Among his many ventures and titles, Mr Musk is CEO of SpaceX which aims to set up a colony on Mars by 2040.PHOTO: REUTERS

Being bullied at school and almost dying from malaria energised Elon Musk, giving his brilliance space to shine

Although Mr Elon Musk celebrated his 45th birthday just two weeks ago, he has made such a name for himself as an inventor, entrepreneur and technology wizard that he is already being called a modern day Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Nikola Tesla.

Not one to modestly shrug off such comparisons, the self-made billionaire once told PBS, the American Public Broadcasting System, that he ranks Edison - who was born in a modest home-turned-museum in Milan, Ohio, 145km west of Cleveland - as one of his personal heroes. Britain's Winston Churchill is the other.

Mr Musk is also the CEO of the innovative American electric car company named after Tesla, the brilliant Serbian-American inventor and futurist who once worked for Edison and later became a fierce rival. Early this year, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met Mr Musk and took what he called a "brief but exhilarating" ride in a Tesla Model S P90D, during a tour of California's Silicon Valley.

But Tesla Motors has now found itself in the news more for a variety of troubles that have jeopardised the company's financial stability than its contributions to technology. There have been reports of safety flaws, including the recent death of a Florida man who was killed when his Tesla Model S sedan slammed into a truck while in "autopilot" mode, as well as problems getting its cars onto the roads in Singapore, among other issues.

No matter. Mr Musk continues to make news with advances in countless other ventures, ranging from designing the Hyperloop high- speed public transport system to conceptualising solar power systems to establishing a colony on Mars by 2040 through his private space company Space X.

With a personal worth estimated at US$12.7 billion (S$17 billion) as of last month, Mr Musk lives in a mansion alongside movie stars in the posh Bel Air section of Los Angeles, and has carved out a colourful life as large as his fortune. It has included three marriages to two women - he married British actress Talulah Riley twice and is now again separated from her - and six children, one of whom died of sudden infant death syndrome.

For all that, he is also a known workaholic who has been quoted in a biography as saying he wished there was a way he did not have to eat so he could work more.

"I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal," author Ashlee Vance quotes him as saying in Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX And The Quest For A Fantastic Future, published last year.

Born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1971, the young Elon at age 12 had already created a video game called Blastar that he sold to a magazine for US$500.

This was despite suffering psychological torture from his father - something he told Britain's Daily Mail, without giving details.

With an obvious brilliance as a child that he did not shy away from showing off, he was bullied severely by his classmates - they kicked him, bashed his head and threw him down a staircase.

"You get chased around by gangs at school who tried to beat the s**t out of me, and then I'd come home, and it would just be awful there as well. It was just like non-stop horrible," the Daily Mail quoted Mr Musk as saying. "For some reason, they decided that I was it, and they were going to go after me non-stop. That's what made growing up difficult. For a number of years, there was no respite."

At age 18, Mr Musk decided to put all that behind him. He left South Africa, moving first to Canada, then to the United States, where he became a citizen in 2002.

He earned bachelor degrees from the University of Pennsylvania but left a PhD programme in applied physics and materials science at Stanford University after just two days to pursue his dreams of shaping the future of the world.

In 1995, Mr Musk and his brother, Kimbal, started a Web software company called Zip2 that developed and marketed Internet city guides for newspapers, signing contracts with The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Its sale netted him US$22 million.

Four years later, he helped turn a money transfer service called Pay- Pal into a success story that eventually brought him US$165 million.

Mr Musk's move into space, electric cars as well as other realms followed quickly, and has been well documented, but the world nearly lost him in 2000. While vacationing in Brazil and then South Africa with his first wife, Canadian author Justin Wilson, he contracted the deadliest form of malaria. It took him six months to recover.

In a later reaction that summed up his work ethic, he was quoted in the Vance biography as saying: "That's my lesson for taking a vacation: A vacation will kill you."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2016, with the headline 'The X factor driving a serial inventor'. Print Edition | Subscribe