Kimbal Musk talks to Danny Fortson about farming on Mars.
Kimbal Musk, all 6ft 5in of him, is folded up like a praying mantis on the back seat of a Tesla Model X, barrelling down a desolate highway on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado. The featureless plateau whizzes by. Musk, his trademark cowboy hat resting on his knee, is talking about gardening — on Mars, naturally.
His famous older sibling, Elon, is hellbent on colonising the red planet, and Kimbal, 46, his lifelong consigliere and business partner, is an avid supporter. In fact, the younger Musk, who spends his days as a crusader for good eating — think Jamie Oliver, but without the hectoring and blubbering — has a start-up that could profit handsomely from those galactic ambitions. "We're building the farming system for Mars," he says through a grin.
The business, called Square Roots, recreates the best growing conditions in the world — summer in Genoa, spring in California's Central Valley — inside 8ft x 40ft shipping containers. Perfect for Mars, as it turns out, where temperatures average a rather chilly –62C.
"Those containers are the way we will grow food in space," Musk explains, before handing over his iPhone to show a picture of the Raptor, a giant rocket engine made by Elon's company, SpaceX. "That is the most powerful engine ever built," he says. "It's what will take people to Mars."
Fifty years on from Neil Armstrong's moon landing, SpaceX is in the early stages of constructing Starship, a passenger vehicle that will ferry up to 100 people to the red planet. "I think the old rule of thumb was that you need 500 people for a colony, like when they would colonise America or wherever. Just for the gene pool," he says. "And sanity."
Does Musk himself plan to relocate? "I'm less interested in [moving to] Mars because I'm doing so much work … on Earth."
He immediately recognises the absurdity of his statement and bursts into laughter. But if you're Kimbal Musk, who has been at Elon's side on every one of his madcap ventures, that happens a lot — the absurd has a way of merging with reality. "It's crazy to say, but it's very exciting," he goes on. "I think that the people who colonise Mars will be heralded as amazing heroes in Earth's timeline."
Elon Musk seems determined to bend the world to his will, whether by ending the internal combustion engine's century of dominance via his Tesla electric cars, or by turning humans into a multiplanetary species through SpaceX. Kimbal? His goals are far more … terrestrial.
View this post on Instagram
I love New York City. After selling Zip2, my first startup that helped build the foundation for online maps and door-to-door directions on the Internet, I moved to New York and enrolled in culinary school. An intense experience that opened my eyes to the chef world. Now I cook much differently than the traditional French teachings of the school but it was such a formative time of my life. I’m thankful to have lived in New York City as a young chef and entrepreneur. ❤️🗽#nyc #cheflife
A post shared by Kimbal Musk (@kimbalmusk) on
All he wants to do is tear down America's multitrillion-dollar industrial food complex and rebuild it using fresh, locally sourced ingredients grown in thousands of metal containers. Think of it as a trial run for space farming, with the benefit of making us less fat. Square Roots promises to churn out the equivalent of three acres of fresh greens from each of its climate-controlled containers, which are equipped with LED growing lights and hydroponic equipment. Musk is the company's co-founder, chairman and chief funder.
"The summer of Genoa in 2009 produced the best basil in recent history," Musk explains. " We've mapped that climate — what time did the sun come up, oxygen levels, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, what days did it rain, what time did the sun set … We recreate that summer inside a shipping container." The company has 10 containers in Brooklyn, New York, where the technology is being perfected. In 10 years' time? "We should be at 1,000 Square Roots farms," he reckons.
That is only one part of his plan. He has also launched a restaurant chain to take on the ubiquitous "casual dining" brands that dominate America's strip malls, airports and low-income neighbourhoods. That may sound like a modest ambition, but taking on Big Food is no small task. His chain, called Next Door, serves farm-to-table food at reasonable prices.
"Our goal is to replace all the Chili's and Applebee's in America with real food restaurants," Kimbal says. "It's a lot — tens of thousands of restaurants. That's the goal."
In case you haven't had the pleasure, Applebee's is everywhere, with almost 2,000 restaurants. Its menu is a carnival of American excess, with artery-busting creations like the quesadilla burger, a multistory tower of tortilla wrap, melted cheese and beef.
Musk is affable in the extreme, not prone to the outbursts that have got his brother into trouble. (The Tesla boss is being sued for defamation by British diver Vernon Unsworth, who he called "pedo guy" on Twitter during the rescue of 12 schoolboys from caves in Thailand last year.) So it is perhaps little surprise that he is not couching his crusade in alarmist rhetoric, though he certainly could. America may be plotting a return to the moon — President Donald Trump says it will happen by 2024, a venture with which Elon hopes to be intimately involved — but it has more pressing problems. The obesity epidemic, for one. Nearly 40% of adults are obese and close to one in five children are dangerously overweight. All of which makes America unique in human history: it could be the first nation that actually eats itself to death.
From his outpost in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Musk is attempting to reverse that tide. Jamie Oliver is a friend and a "huge inspiration", he says. "His work in England has been amazing, and not just what he's done in schools, but he's also gotten the government to do a sugar tax to reduce the consumption of sugary beverages. Amazing."
Musk continues: "His strength is really, you know, kicking ass in the UK, and so we've taken a lot of his ideas and tried to apply them in the US."
Wind the clock back to the late 1990s, when the internet was taking off, and you would never have guessed that Musk would be here, living in Boulder, Colorado (population 107,000), gently haranguing people into eating beet burgers.
He was a techie. Having migrated with his brother from South Africa to Canada via Queen's University in Toronto, their careers took off in Silicon Valley. In 1999 they sold their first business, an early digital mapping company called Zip2, based in Palo Alto, California. They unloaded it for $307m in cash, and aged 26 and 27, Kimbal and Elon became millionaires. "Selling an internet company in 1999 was as cool as it got in the business world," Musk says. "At the time it was the largest all-cash technology transaction in history."
The brothers looked set to dominate the technology landscape for decades to come. Elon would soon start X.com, which would eventually become PayPal. Kimbal was his first investor.
Yet a couple tragic events, separated by nearly a decade, put Kimbal on a different path. First was the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then he broke his neck.
Musk's conversion from tech tycoon to food fighter started when he got his cheque from the Zip2 sale. All of a sudden, he had more money than he knew what to do with — and Silicon Valley was not really his scene. He found it dry, boring. "It was a little bit more driven than I'd like it," he says. "I prefer a more social environment."
So he moved to New York. He bought a penthouse in Manhattan and enrolled in the prestigious French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Centre) to indulge the passion he'd had since childhood. Amid the aspiring chefs, he was seen as the rich tech "hotshot". The experience knocked him down a few pegs. He says it was "one of the hardest things I've done in my life", comparing the school to boot camp.
"They break you down. I remember this French chef, probably a foot shorter than me. I could feel the spit landing on my face while he was screaming at me, and I could do nothing about it. It was kind of like, 'This is what you signed up for.' "
Of a class of 25, he was one of only six that graduated in August 2001. Terrorists attacked the World Trade Center the next month. His mother, Maye Musk, a model and dietitian who lived not far from Ground Zero, reached out to the firefighters, offering her son's culinary services. For six weeks, Musk worked in the kitchens of a restaurant that had closed in the wake of the attacks. He'd make food and drive it down to a gymnasium where the firefighters were coming back from the line of duty.
"Seeing them eat real food and connect with each other, and then go right back out into those giant piles of melting metal, to go save American lives … It was awesome to see the power of food and how it brings people together," he recalls. "I had never intended to do a restaurant, I just wanted to learn how to cook. After that I was like, 'Yup, gotta go do a restaurant.' "
He also knew that he'd had enough of the Big Apple. If Silicon Valley was too boring, New York was too … New York. "It's like being at a great party," Musk explains. "No matter how good it is, at some point in the night you want to go home. In New York, you never get to go home."
View this post on Instagram
Regram @squarerootsgrow pic by 📸 @herb.m.grower of a modular, programmable, climate controlled farm built inside a 320 square foot shipping container at our Square Roots headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. Climate Containers hold optimum conditions for a variety of crops. ☀️⛅️🌧 The perfect climate for each variety can be seamlessly replicated — in any market — to ensure consistent quality every time, at every harvest. 🌱 #squarerootsgrow #verticalfarming #farming #brooklyn #newyork #realfood
A post shared by Kimbal Musk (@kimbalmusk) on
A road trip led him and his wife, the installation artist Jen Lewin, to settle in Boulder, a "great restaurant town", smack in the middle of the country. He teamed up with the British chef Hugo Matheson and started the Kitchen in 2004. At the time, it was an odd concept: pricy, well made food with nearly all local ingredients. Every day more than 40 farmers would drop off meat, fruit and veg at the back door. "It was crazy. It was very hard to get farmers to work with us," he recalls. It would be many more years before "farm to table" became a concept people would recognise.
The Kitchen worked, but Musk felt the tug of something bigger. After all, in Silicon Valley every company is fixated on "scale", on doing something big that can change the world. His little haute cuisine experiment in the Rockies was the opposite. It was a micro-success.
He still had a front-row seat to the Silicon Valley future machine. When Elon took over Tesla in 2004, it was a quixotic little electric sports car upstart, still two years away from turning out its first vehicle. Musk had big plans even then, claiming it would one day be a mass producer that would "expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar-electric economy". Kimbal joined the board at the same time.
Eventually Kimbal himself was dragged back into tech, for a real-time search engine company that had moved its headquarters to Boulder so he could run it. "It was like chewing sawdust every day," he says. "It made me realise how much I loved food."
Musk soldiered on until a second tragedy, this one personal, changed everything. It was February 14, 2010 — Valentine's Day — and Musk had taken his family to a sledging hill in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Musk figured he'd have a go on an inner tube his kids were using.
"I got to the bottom and the tube hit the breaking mats and it just threw me," he recalls. "I flew about 30 feet (9m) and landed on my head going 35mph (56kmh) . It pushed my head down and broke my neck, C6 and C7. I told myself when I was going into surgery that, if they did fix me, I'd focus on food. It was an opportunity to do what I think is the best use of my time here on Earth."
They did fix him. Doctors drained blood that had pooled in his neck and was putting pressure on his spine. They took a piece of bone from his hip, which was used to fuse his vertebrae.
After he recovered, Musk resigned from the company he was running, and he and Lewin, with whom he has three children, divorced. They remain amicable. The year after the accident he started Big Green, a non-profit organisation that sets up "learning gardens" in American primary and middle schools, and opened the first branch of Next Door, his answer to Applebee's. His conversion to Jamie Oliver 2.0 had begun.
At a branch of Next Door in a nondescript strip mall in Stapleton, a working-class suburb of Denver, Musk strides through the door like the hipster Marlboro man, wearing a Stetson, thin suede jacket, skinny jeans and trainers. After a quick exchange of pleasantries, and a discussion of our relative heights (I am 6ft 4in), he immediately launches into the most traumatic event of his life. "I used to be 6ft 4in, but I broke my neck about eight years ago, and they put a steel pin in my spine and I grew an inch," he says through a smile. I barely have time to turn on the recorder and he's off.
From anyone else, the oversharing might come off as rehearsed, or put on. But Musk is gregarious, a natural raconteur who does the rounds with his staff before he sits down in a quiet corner to expound on his grand plans. Thinking big seems to run in the family. His grandfather could best be summed up as "an adventurer". He was an American chiropractor who relocated to Canada and would travel regularly to Africa, spending months mapping the Kalahari with his wife and children in tow, sleeping in the desert. Musk's grandparents won the 12,000-mile (19,300km) Cape to Algiers motor rally, and became the first people to fly a single-engine plane from South Africa to Australia. "They flew up the coast of Africa, across India, rebuilt the engine, then flew down through Indonesia to Australia," he says.
These were the stories that Kimbal, Elon and their sister, Tosca, who runs a film-streaming company called Passionflix, grew up on. "The energy in the family was very entrepreneurial," he says.
The brothers took advantage of their mother's Canadian passport to attend Queen's University in Toronto. Kimbal's first job after graduating was at a slaughterhouse, where he worked in an accounting office right next to a "cow cannon" that shot offcuts into a skip. "On Monday mornings, the sausage companies would come pick it up and they put so much crap in those sausages that it didn't matter if the meat was festering," he says. "That smell. I still remember that smell."
The only time that Musk clams up is when the conversation turns to his father, Errol, who last year was revealed to have fathered a child with his stepdaughter, who is 42 years younger. Elon has called him "evil", adding: "He's not a happy man. I don't know how someone becomes like he is."
I ask Kimbal if they are still in touch. "No comment at all," he says through a practised grin.
View this post on Instagram
I cannot wait for tonight’s big, annual event for @biggreen. Many of my #realfood heroes will come together to support real food education in schools across America. Thanks to the generosity of so many wonderful people, including YOU, we have been able to build beautiful outdoor Learning Garden classrooms in over 600 schools nationwide to reach over 350,000 kids. Kids are our future. We must give them power to be real food heroes who will lead the next generation. 🌱🦸🏼♀️ 🦸♂️🌱 #realfoodheroes #gardeneducation #realfoodeducation
A post shared by Kimbal Musk (@kimbalmusk) on
What was clear, even back in their student days in Canada, was that neither of the Musk boys was going to work for someone else. "I wouldn't even know where to start to be a salaryman," Kimbal says. "I did try to work for someone for a few months, for an internet company in 1995 while we were starting Zip2. I'm pretty sure I was doing a terrible job." He quit after three months — and hasn't looked back.
He doesn't have the fame or the $20bn fortune of his brother, but Kimbal appears to like it that way, though he still gets a dash of the star treatment. He married his second wife, Christiana Wyly, daughter of the Texan billionaire Sam Wyly, last summer at the Roman ruins at Sant Marti d'Empuries, a village near Girona, Spain. Paparazzi sold long-range photos of the event to Hola! magazine.
Musk says: "My wife was like, 'We should have just let them in.' The pictures were terrible!" Attendees included Salma Hayek and her husband, the billionaire French industrialist François-Henri Pinault, though he laughs off stories that others in attendance included the Obamas and Will Smith. "None of them were there," he says. "Must not have been a very good party!"
Kimbal may move in the same circles as Elon, but he does so without the unrelenting scrutiny that his brother invites. As Tesla struggled last year to meet production goals for its Model 3 "electric car for the masses", Elon appeared close to breakdown. He was forced to step down as Tesla chairman amid a spate of erratic behaviour, including smoking weed on the Joe Rogan podcast. He gave an emotional interview to The New York Times where he admitted to working 120 hours a week.
Was Kimbal worried? "There was a lot of editorialisation," he says. "I think he just didn't have a lot of sleep because he was working so hard."
Our last stop of the day is at one of the 600 schools where his foundation has set up a learning garden: raised beds in the middle of the playground that allow children to cultivate and harvest fresh food.
His farms-in-a-box are one strand, the restaurants a second. The third is the gardens. "This is a food desert. There are no grocery stores around here," he says, referring to the surrounding community. "But with these kinds of things, there will be an increased demand and grocery stores will start selling fresh food in these communities. Gotta start somewhere."
There is a lot of clear blue water between Musk's vision and reality. His hope is that in 10 years' time, in addition to the 1,000 Square Roots farms, he'll have installed 10,000 learning gardens — roughly 10% of America's schools — and have opened a couple of hundred more restaurants. Lofty goals, no doubt. If it doesn't work out, he could always move to Mars.
Written by: Danny Fortson
© The Times of London