Elon Musk says entrepreneurs are missing ‘tremendous’ opportunities in heavy industry

Tesla CEO Elon Musk
Tesla CEO Elon Musk thinks entrepreneurs are missing opportunities in manufacturing and heavy industry.
Mark Thompson—Getty Images

Tesla CEO Elon Musk isn’t against entrepreneurs creating apps for smartphones, but he wishes more of them would focus on heavy industry—where he says the opportunities are “tremendous.”

The Tesla CEO made the comments while speaking with Ford CEO Jim Farley in a Twitter Spaces event on Thursday evening. The two announced that Tesla supercharger stations will become available to owners of Ford electric vehicles (to the chagrin of Tesla customers already dealing with long wait times).

At one point in the conversation, Farley asked Musk about his experience in processing raw materials near Corpus Christi, Texas, where Tesla earlier this month broke ground on a lithium refinery. 

Lithium hydroxide, which the facility will package and ship, is a core component in electric vehicle batteries, but it’s in short domestic supply. Musk said on Thursday that there’s plenty of lithium globally, but that Tesla identified a “significant choke point” in the processing of it. It’s something that Tesla would rather not do itself, he added, but is compelled to.

“Our actual goal is to do the least amount possible, but then we end up hitting these choke points—or we anticipate hitting choke points,” he said. “So a lot of the vertical integration is really out of necessity.” 

Musk said Tesla would gladly use suppliers instead if they were “solving the problem” and if they could clearly continue to meet the production needs of the carmaker, which could then redirect resources elsewhere.

Tesla has also been building a facility at its Texas gigafactory for producing cathodes, another key part of EV batteries.

“Overallocation of talent

Musk said he wishes more entrepreneurs would get involved in heavy industry. 

“I see so many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley doing a software startup or sort of chasing the latest greatest thing. But not enough of the talent in North America goes into heavy industry,” he said. “And the crazy thing is the opportunity in heavy industry is tremendous. So I’d just really like to encourage entrepreneurs to think about things that don’t involve, you know, that end up on a phone, basically.” 

He added, “Apps on the phone, we need them, but like, you know, I just think we have an overallocation of talent towards apps on phones.” 

Venture capitalist Paul Graham, cofounder of the startup accelerator Y Combinator, commented on the “preponderance of software companies” last month, tweeting, “Making physical stuff is hard. But don’t let that deter you, if that’s what you’re interested in.” 

Musk replied, “Not enough talent in manufacturing & heavy industries.”

One entrepreneur focused on manufacturing for the EV space, it turns out, was an early Tesla employee: Sila Nanotechnologies CEO Gene Berdichevsky. His company, founded in 2011, makes an anode material that can replace graphite, another mineral bottleneck for EV batteries. The U.S. imports all of its graphite, according to Wards Intelligence, with almost a third coming from China.

“I firmly believed that all ground transportation would go electric, and that the big limiting factor in that was the chemistry and the performance of the lithium-ion battery,” Berdichevsky told the Washington Post in March. 

A year ago, Mercedes-Benz announced it would incorporate Sila’s silicon anode chemistry in batteries for its upcoming G-Class electric vehicles.

Musk told Farley on Thursday that Tesla is trying to figure out, “Do we need to do the anode too? Hopefully not. If someone else could please do that, that would be awesome. Synthetic graphite, there’s a big market for it.” He recommended entrepreneurs look into supplying it.

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