Forget the Dos Equis guy–Dr. Richard Garriott de Cayeux is Austin’s most interesting man, at the very least. He invented the gaming phrase “avatar,” spent nearly his entire net worth to visit the International Space Station and is the only single person to own part of the moon. He also helped found the Google Lunar X Prize, which will award any privately-funded spaceflight team that can successfully launch a robotic spacecraft that can land and travel across the surface of the Moon while sending back to Earth specified images and other data. He joked: “If you can land on the part of the moon I own, I’ll pay you $1 million for finding it–then charge you $1 million for trespassing.”
He created his wealth through the multiple gaming companies he started, beginning in the 1970s. He says his games are different because he ties in real social issues, such as racism. “I like to make games that are worthy of your time to play on a personal level. As a society, we are still struggling with equality issues on every level. Games are inclusive, but most gamemakers are white males. It’s really hard to find a woman who is a programmer. In my whole life, I’ve interviewed three, maybe four. And it’s the anonymity of games that allow people to act in their worst ways.”
He is extremely interested in a variety of topics, and has the collections to prove it. One of his interests guided some of his investments.
“I built a succession of companies to try to get civilians in space so I could go myself. I call myself a private astronaut. I had to train for two years and learn to run every piece of equipment on board, so I’d say I was more than a passenger. I spent the majority of my net worth to go to space for 12 days.”
One of his many side passions is working to find a solution to the ever-growing Austin traffic problem. He says when you build virtual worlds for a living, it gives you a new perspective on how to fix real world problems.
“If I could solve this problem, it would be a worthy problem to solve. When you create virtual worlds, you really need to study the practical world and urban problems. One of the things I’ve appreciated about Austin from the beginning is that entrepreneurs feel this unwritten obligation to give back to the community in an interesting way. That’s what makes Austin is so cool–we all appreciate what everyone else is doing and you want to give back too.”
Dr. Garriott de Cayeux believes Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) will be the best solution to solve the traffic issue.
“Why don’t I use public transit? There are a few reasons people don’t. It’s not on demand. It’s not point-to-point. You have to learn the switch and wait again. It’s not full speed. It’s not private. As bad as a car is to use, it’s still my best choice. My first solution, which I’m not recommending, was that I thought of a grid of north, south, east and west gondolas. Too complex, too expensive, dangerous and unreliable. But there is an envisionable solution. That’s when I googled PRT, personal rapid transit. Almost universally it’s a raised guideway with an automated golf cart, enclosed with air conditioning.
There are lots of people experimenting with this, but most importantly there is one person who has pulled this off. Heathrow Terminal in London has now been in service for five years. It exists, it’s measurable and provable, and it’s working at Heathrow. I started pitching this around in 2010. Everyone I talked to was quite positive about this, except they felt there was so much pressure to make light rail work, no one felt they could support an alternative. So we let light rail run its course. Ever since it failed to pass last November, we’ve restarted working on PRT.
It’s 10th the price in dollars per distance than light rail. You don’t need subsidies or even tax payer money at all. All I need is for people to not say no and stay out of the way (laughs). No one will be asked for money, so even if I’m wrong it is not a big deal. All we need is permission, which is a big deal. There’s still tons of issues to work out, but the big deal is we don’t need money.”
He stressed his PRT solution would be funded through private investors, like himself, and companies who want in. By this point, solving the traffic problem is less of a hobby and more of a personal investment, similar to his other companies.
“A lot of things entrepreneurs succeed at is because they just don’t give up. I knew this traffic issue was a long-haul game when I got into it. Having some starts and stops and failures along the way doesn’t daunt me.”