The Tesla Mafia: Elon Musk’s Ex-Employees Vie To Become His Top Rival
Musk hasn’t simply revolutionized the electric vehicle market—he’s created his own billion-dollar rivals
PayPal is famous not just for its pioneering of electronic payments but also for its mafia—a group of successful alums who went on to start or fund companies ranging from Yelp and LinkedIn to Palantir and Affirm.
Now Elon Musk, the gang’s most famous capo with his vast Tesla wealth, has spawned a newer mob that might one day rival the original. A string of former employees at the carmaker have gone on to form electric vehicle and battery companies, mostly in California. (Dozens of others have landed at EV companies like busmaker Proterra and truckmaker Rivian.) These ex-Tesla staffers are poised to have an outsize impact on the $6 trillion global auto industry in the decades to come.
“Tesla can’t do it alone,” says Peter Rawlinson, Tesla’s chief engineer for its Model S and now CEO of his own electric vehicle startup, Lucid. Musk “needs some competition,” he adds.
“It’s a good community to be part of,” explains Sterling Anderson, a cofounder of autonomous driving startup Aurora, who left Tesla in 2016. “I’ve been really pleased to see how successful and impactful several of my former colleagues have been in various spaces.”
Rawlinson, Anderson and these three other ex-Tesla standouts are getting ready to both compete with, and aid, Tesla’s push to electrify and automate the auto industry. Their companies already have a combined value of more than $30 billion. That’s a fraction of Tesla’s $780 billion market cap, but it’s just the beginning.
Aurora Innovation, Cofounder and Chief Product Officer
Anderson arrived at Tesla in 2013 to work on the Model X crossover and helped launch Tesla’s pursuit of self-driving technology by leading the development of its Autopilot driver-assist feature. “I liken it to serving in the trenches together,” he says of his time there. “You build a real bond in a high-pressure environment like that.”
The MIT-trained scientist left in 2016 to cofound self-driving startup Aurora Innovation, joined by former Google self-driving car chief Chris Urmson and Carnegie Mellon University AI researcher Drew Bagnell. Aurora has raised more than $1 billion and, in December 2020, acquired Uber’s autonomous unit, boosting the odds it’ll be a major player in autonomous vehicle technology. So far, it’s lined up tech partnerships with Uber, truck maker Paccar and Toyota. The Silicon Valley startup’s valuation jumped to an estimated $10 billion, following the Uber acquisition.
Sila Nanotechnologies, Cofounder and CEO
Berdichevsky was Tesla’s seventh employee, hired in 2004 as principal battery engineer for the Roadster, the company’s first attempt at an electric car for the consumer market. By the time it came out, he was more interested in finding new ways to make the lithium-ion batteries he was working with a lot cheaper and more efficient. “After the Roadster launch, it was a decision to build my own company or stay and do the Model S project,” Berchidevsky says, who left in 2008 and started Sila Nano in 2011.
The battery outfit has since developed a silicon-based anode to replace costlier graphite. The material could make batteries used by Tesla and other EV makers at least 20% more efficient and eventually maybe improve performance by 50%, according to the company. It’s raised $930 million, including a $590 million round in January that boosted Sila Nano’s valuation to an estimated $3.3 billion and provided funds for its first large-scale plant that opens in 2024. “It’s been a long journey, but fundamentally I love to do this.”
Fisker Inc., Cofounder and CEO
Fisker, a famed designer who once styled a BMW roadster for James Bond and led Aston Martin’s design studio, served as a design consultant for the Model S. Musk didn’t like his design and (unsuccessfully) sued him in 2008 for breach of contract, claiming the Danish entrepreneur took the contract to spy on Tesla (which Fisker denied). Fisker’s first attempt at a Tesla competitor, the plug-in hybrid Karma luxury car, failed due to a string of complications–battery fires, assembly flaws, even a shipment of cars lost in a 2012 hurricane. He shut down Fisker Automotive in 2014.
Now he’s back with a new company, publicly traded Fisker Inc., and getting ready to sell electric Ocean crossovers. The battery-powered SUV, priced from $37,500, will be built with auto-engineering giant Magna and compete directly with Tesla’s Model Y. Fisker, which went public in a 2020 SPAC deal, is a year away from starting production, but already has a market capitalization of $4 billion and about $1 billion of cash for product development. Raising the funds to launch an automotive startup was a key lesson from the early days. “The automotive industry is not really the type of industry that Silicon Valley either should or wants to invest in,” Fisker says, recalling money problems that arose at Fisker Automotive. “Tesla got out of it fairly quickly. . . . Elon had a lot of money (from PayPal) when he got into Tesla, so that helped. Then he was able to go public very early in 2010. . . . We weren’t.”
Lucid Motors, Cofounder and CEO
Rawlinson, a veteran of Jaguar and Lotus, joined Tesla in 2009. He and Musk “got on like a house on fire”—at least at first. “We both obsess about reaching for the stars with technology, and the engineering just can't be good enough,” Rawlinson says via Zoom. He was chief engineer for Tesla’s Model S, the 2012 electric sedan that redefined how good battery-powered cars can be.
He left that same year to help take care of his ailing mother and after some frustration with Musk over the Model X development program. Now he’s CEO of Lucid Motors, a Newark, California-based electric vehicle startup charged up with $1.3 billion of funds from Saudi Arabia. Deliveries of top-of-the-line luxury electric Air sedans, able to go more than 500 miles per charge and priced at $169,000, begin this spring. “I’m not competing with Tesla’s product; I’m competing with Mercedes-Benz,” says Rawlinson.
Redwood Materials, Founder and CEO
Like Musk, Straubel is a fellow Tesla cofounder and was its chief technology officer from the electric carmaker’s earliest days until 2019. His early dream was to make electric cars to cut carbon pollution.
Now he’s focused on battery recycling with his startup, Redwood Materials, to ensure that the lithium, cobalt and nickel in used batteries from Teslas and other electric vehicles stay out of landfills and dumps. The Carson City, Nevada-based company announced a $40 million funding round in September 2020, as it begins working on recycling projects with Panasonic and Amazon. “To fight climate change, we need to solve the impact products have on the environment,” he said at the time of the fundraising. Forbes estimates Straubel has a net worth of $1 billion—assuming he retains a chunk of his Tesla shares and based on stock received as board member for QuantumScape, a battery maker backed by Bill Gates.