The successful launch of Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy, whimsically sending aloft a Tesla Roadster driven by a space-suited mannequin highlights a new group of players on the economic scene, driving technology forward. They are the billionaire boys who use money made elsewhere to pursue interests on the cutting edge of exciting technologies.
Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates, put up $25m of his own money to fund Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composities, and helped it win the X-Prize of $10m for the first private manned spaceflight of SpaceShipOne in 2004. Allen's backed it not for a return, but to speed up access to space by private citizens. As a sideline Allen also funds the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. He put $30m into the Allen telescope array to aid the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
Elon Musk made his first millions with Zip2, an internet city guide, receiving $22m when Compaq bought it. He co-founded Paypal and received $165m when it was snapped up by eBay. Like Allen he has helped to fund private enterprise spaceflight, founding SpaceX with $100m. SpaceX developed the Falcon rocket that sends Dragon capsules to the International Space Station (ISS), and which has pioneered re-usable launch vehicles.
Musk also founded Tesla Motors to advance electric car technology. Tesla has pioneered battery innovations that solved the short range problems that held back the spread of electric vehicles. One of Tesla's backers is Larry Page, who co-founded Google with Sergey Brin and has also backed alternative energy sources. He has donated $20m to the Voice Health Research Institute after developing vocal cord issues of his own.
His Google partner, Sergey Brin, is worth billions, but draws an annual salary of just $1, as Page and Musk do, as Steve Jobs did. He backed the genetic research company, 23andMe, founded by his then wife, Anne Wojcicki, and has also put money into alternative energy, including wind-powered electricity from high performance kites, and has even funded the development of lab-grown meat.
I met Sergey Brin and Larry Page (and Paul Allen) at Soyuz launches from Kazakhstan, there to watch other billionaires ride to the ISS as "mission specialists" – formally called "space tourists." What struck me very forcibly was how boyish they all are, bubbling with enthusiasm over new gadgets and ventures. These are boys who can afford to play with very expensive toys, and their enthusiasm is bringing forward the day when their toys become available to the rest of us at affordable prices.
Other players in this billionaire's game include Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon. His toy is the New Shepard vehicle of his aerospace company, Blue Origin. A manned capsule is being developed to take astronauts into orbit at the top of the flight path, with the New Shepard setting itself down on Earth to be readied for another flight.
The common theme is of billionaires who put their spare wealth into bringing forward the technology they dreamed about as boys, and never quite grew out of. They push technology forward because they want to see the toys - the private space-planes, the augmented reality experiences, the high performance electric cars, and the driverless cars that will one day whisk commuters to and from work.
The billionaire boys want to see tomorrow, and are putting resources into making it come sooner. And the rate of technological progress is accelerating because of their activities.