Software billionaire who was nearly killed by an elephant tells Robin Pagnamenta how AI spells doom for many giants of business.

Silicon Valley can be a brutally competitive place but there aren't many technology executives who have stared death straight in the face.

Almost exactly a decade ago Thomas Siebel, the billionaire American founder of software companies Siebel Systems and C3, was trampled by an elephant.

Now aged 66, Siebel had recently sold a business for US$5.8 billion ($8.58b) to his former boss, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, and was on a walking safari in Tanzania with his wife and daughters.

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When they startled a herd of 15 wild elephants, Siebel was dismayed as a 6 tonne female turned and charged.

He was gored through his leg, knocked over and stamped on, shattering his thigh, ribs and smashing his shoulder. His foot was nearly severed and was dangling by tendons and skin.

"It was a bad day," deadpans Siebel, who grew up in Chicago before moving to California to join Oracle in 1984. "I was hurt pretty critically. I had 19 reconstructive surgeries and I wasn't able to walk for four years."

The entrepreneur, who has earned US$2.9b building and selling software businesses, has made a remarkable comeback. His new company C3, is a software developer for the "industrial internet of things" or a network of devices, vehicles and building sensors that collect and exchange data.

Customers include Centrica, Royal Dutch Shell and Caterpillar.Investors include U2 singer Bono and Jeff Skoll, the billionaire film-maker behind Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.

After his close shave it's no surprise that Siebel likes to speak about the business world in Darwinian terms. To Siebel, it's a ferocious fight for survival against emerging and sometimes ruthless competitive threats. He says the confluence of four powerful new technologies — cloud computing, artificial intelligence, big data and the internet of things — now represent an unstoppable force, which is driving a one-off "extinction event" for many of the world's biggest companies.

Like the dinosaurs, they risk being wiped out by intense competition from tech giants like Amazon, Uber and Google. "These technologies change everything. We can use them to solve problems that were unsolvable," he says.

Siebel believes that for business nothing will ever be quite the same again.

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"In the past 440 million years, we've had five mass extinction events. Each of these was followed by a mass respeciation of species. There's an analogue in what's going on in the business world."

Siebel claims that in the last 18 years, 52 per cent of all the Fortune 500 companies have vanished. But that process is set to accelerate as technological change speeds up.

Thomas Siebel believes that for business nothing will ever be quite the same again. Photo / 123RF
Thomas Siebel believes that for business nothing will ever be quite the same again. Photo / 123RF

"Where are companies like Westinghouse, Kodak, Toys R Us, Sears Roebuck? They're just gone. At the same time all these companies with new DNA are sprouting up every day like Amazon, Uber, Airbnb."

The new breed of companies are using technology in new and creative ways while those that fail to adapt are doomed, he says.

"We now have the tools and the underlying theory to use computers as prediction engines, to predict events with a high level of accuracy. So now we can predict things like heart failure, disease onset or whether a financial transaction is fraudulent."

After studying at the University of Illinois Siebel moved to Silicon Valley in the early 80s, surfing an early wave of innovation and investment.

"In 1983, the worldwide market for IT was US$15b. Today, it's US$3.5 trillion. In five years, it'll be US$8t."

At Oracle, he emerged as a polished dealmaker and salesman working closely with Ellison. But by 1993 Siebel had quit to set up Siebel Systems, after clashing with him over strategy.

Siebel had the last laugh, selling his company back to Oracle in 2006. By then Siebel Systems had 8000 employees, 4500 corporate customers, and annual revenues exceeding US$2b.

Siebel turned to philanthropy and investment, ploughing much of the cash into First Virtual Group, which invests in everything from agriculture to real estate to software. His new company, C3, which used AI to optimise energy grids to cut greenhouse gas emissions, was created a few months before his trip to Tanzania. But the accident suspended the project for several years before he was able to return to work, initially in a wheelchair.

With Siebel back in decent health, C3 is making rapid progress — in 2017, it was worth US$1.4b.

Siebel is scathing about the impact of social media companies like Facebook on society and democracy.

"There is reason to be very concerned," he says. "Everybody lives in these echo-chambers where they only see the news they like. There is not a free and open exchange of ideas. We have a whole generation of people who are highly intolerant of other views. This is tribalism."

He believes governments must rein in manipulation of social media networks. "These systems are being weaponised and these companies are becoming more powerful than governments."