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The billionaire boys and their toys

Summary:
On July 11th Richard Branson flew to the edge of space, just shy of 53 miles up, just short of the internationally recognized Kármán Line (62 miles) that marks the point where outer space begins. On July 20th Jeff Bezos hopes to reach space itself in his New Shepherd capsule.A handful of rich people are driving technology forward at a faster pace than it might otherwise develop.  They are the billionaire boys, who use money made elsewhere to aim at the cutting edge of innovation.  They push technological advance at a faster pace than it would achieve if left to straightforward commercial development.They are all well-known for the products and processes they introduced to make their first fortunes. They enriched us all with search engines, home delivery and electric cars. Many of them

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On July 11th Richard Branson flew to the edge of space, just shy of 53 miles up, just short of the internationally recognized Kármán Line (62 miles) that marks the point where outer space begins. On July 20th Jeff Bezos hopes to reach space itself in his New Shepherd capsule.

A handful of rich people are driving technology forward at a faster pace than it might otherwise develop.  They are the billionaire boys, who use money made elsewhere to aim at the cutting edge of innovation.  They push technological advance at a faster pace than it would achieve if left to straightforward commercial development.

They are all well-known for the products and processes they introduced to make their first fortunes. They enriched us all with search engines, home delivery and electric cars. Many of them became rich through software or internet development, but are now applying their wealth to areas that excite them in fields such as space travel and transport.

Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates, put up $25m of his own money to fund Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, and to help it win the X-Prize of $10m for achieving the first private manned spaceflight above the Kármán Line with SpaceShipOne in 2004.  Its successor is SpaceShipTwo, the vehicle behind Virgin Galactic. Allen's original backing was not done for a return, but to speed up access to space by private citizens.  As a sideline Allen, whose own fortune was estimated at £20bn, also funded 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). He died in 2018, having left a big mark on technology.

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 launches its Dragon capsules to the International Space Station (ISS), and lowers costs by being re-usable.

Musk also founded Tesla Motors to advance electric car technology.  He fundamentally redesigned the car, and pioneered battery innovations that solved the limited 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 is reckoned to be worth $112.5bn.  He has also backed alternative energy sources, is reported to have donated $20m to the Voice Health Research Institute after developing vocal cord issues of his own.

His Google partner, Sergey Brin, is worth over $105.5bn, 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 kites, and funded the initial development of lab-grown meat.  He invested $4.5m in Space Adventures, and has booked a flight to the International Space Station.

These billionaires are all very boyish in temperament, bubbling with enthusiasm over new gadgets and ventures.  These boys play with very expensive toys, however, and their enthusiasm is bringing closer the day when their toys become available to the rest of us at more affordable prices.

A major player in this billionaire's game is Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon and is reputedly worth $213bn.  His toy is the New Shepard vehicle of his aerospace company, Blue Origin.  The rocket lands vertically under power, just like the science fiction rockets of 1950s comics.  A manned capsule will take astronauts into orbit, while the Blue Origin returns to Earth to be readied for another flight.

Bill Gates is the odd man out, preferring to fund the Bill and Melinda Gates charitable foundation rather than to advance technology that excites his enthusiasm, but even here his wealth might well conquer malaria.

The common theme is of billionaires using their wealth to bring forward the technology they dreamed about as boys, and never quite grew out of. It’s not entirely new. Britain's Industrial Revolution featured several gentlemen who used the wealth of landed estates to fund the development of inventions they thought would be useful.  Some did it with an eye to future profits, but others did it to improve humankind.

What is remarkable about today's billionaire boys is the scale of the wealth they commit to pushing forward their dreams.  They have money to spare, and can take risks no shareholders of boards of directors would contemplate.  They push technology forward because they want to see the toys - the private space-planes, the high performance electric cars, and the driverless vehicles that will one day whisk commuters to and from work more rapidly than high speed trains can. 

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.

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