bonus episode – A few pages away from Mars | Tim Ellis
In this bonus episode, Tim Ellis, the co-founder and CEO of relativity space speaks about his dream to become a writer; how his life with his partner, the artist Richelle Gribble, is influencing him, and why art, science, and space are all tied together when we are looking to answers our most meaningful questions.
The transcript was produced by an AI, mistakes might appear.
[00:00:00] Nir Hindi: Hey, Tim. Welcome to the Artian podcast.
[00:00:02] Tim Ellis: Hi, good to see you near and glad, glad to be on. Can
[00:00:07] Nir Hindi: you introduce yourself
[00:00:08] Tim Ellis: quickly? Yeah, of course. So I’m Tim Ellis. I’m the CEO and co-founder of Relativity Space. I founded the company five years ago to 3d print rockets. So we’re building the world’s largest metal 3d printers, um, as well as a whole factory, that’s really a new tech stock for aerospace.
And then where we’re building rockets to launch satellite store. And we’re our long-term vision is to build the future of humanity on Mars. So, um, we’re only the second company in two decades that want to go to Mars and make humanity multi-planetary, that’s a longterm vision. And I think 3d printings, inevitable tech for building the humanities future on Mars.
And, you know, I think in many ways that’s a big art project, uh, in some sense too. So really glad to talk with you about, uh, the intersection of art and science.
[00:00:58] Nir Hindi: Great. So probably people asking. Wow. I mean, everything you just said so much technology engineering and space, how the art comes in, how are you related to?
[00:01:09] Tim Ellis: Yeah, so I think in, in many ways, so I actually backing up some married to an artist, Rochelle, Gribble, and Rochelle Ellis now. So I’m married to her and we’ve been together for almost eight years. We actually met when we were both giving TEDx talks at USC. So we went to college together and she was giving a talk on art and connectivity and how the intersection of technology, the environment and social networks were really reflected in her art.
I was giving a TEDx talk on going to Mars and why this is important for humanity. It’s funny in many ways. Um, even though I’m an engineering background soon backing up further, uh, in high school, I actually thought I was going to be a screenwriter. So I had two drafts of novels. They were like, I loved fight club and American psycho is like very kind of transgressive fiction that I loved to write.
Um, and like Donnie Darko, you know, movies like that. So I actually went to USC originally thinking I was going to graduate and be a screenwriter. And then I switched to aerospace engineering during orientation. So I think art’s always been in my DNA and blood, but, you know, I was never a true artist or like it was clear, I guess I wasn’t going to be great.
Uh, so then when I met Richelle, I mean, I was just enamored of course, both by her as a person. And, you know, I love her a ton, but also. I was blown away at the art she made. And I think saw in her some of that creative genius that always wanted to have myself. And then I think I found my own creative genius and building companies.
And I think engineering is just creativity with physics. Um, and you have to be really creative to build a product no one’s ever built before in a whole sector that no one’s ever built before. And so I think people really under appreciate the creativity and the vision and storytelling and how you actually like stir people’s soul to want to see this thing exist, actually build something from nothing.
And I think it’s a lot of that creative genius and soul that you find in artists as well. Yeah.
[00:03:16] Nir Hindi: You know, it’s very interesting because you just mentioned, eh, Richelle. That’s the question that now I have for you, because Rochelle deals a lot with space when you have a company that works in space, and I wonder how her work actually influenced your perception of space.
[00:03:34] Tim Ellis: Well, I think first it’s super interesting cause we’ve, we’ve talked a lot about it. So Richelle Gribbels has done her journey in space, like in a pretty different world than me actually. So. She’s really struck off on her own. I mean, she started her journey, uh, you know, right after I got out of college doing many, many art residencies.
So she would, uh, as the nomadic artists travel around to all sorts of different places like Wyoming, The ultimately, you know, the north pole, Japan, uh, planet labs, putting art on satellites. So I think it was really the planet labs experience working with a forest. You mentioned you had on your show before and putting art on satellites, even that.
It wasn’t kicking off space for her. As I saw it as much as then, you know, she really got plugged into a guy, Frank White, who coined the overview effect. And I think it was a natural progression of her work. Like it was really around seeing how she was dealing a ton with art technology, social networks, and then the environment.
And I think the more she pulled the thread and really saw. That are in tech and the environment like the environment was the big thing. And it was clear that we were harming the planet and not really finding ways to be sustainable, that I think that drove her to space because it was really like spaces, the ultimate overview effect that really puts the planet into context and perspective.
And for me, I mean, just watching that journey has been really inspiring because in many ways, I think for my work at relativity space, You know, not only are we building a company, but we’re also building towards this mission of putting humanity on Mars. And I think like the reason that’s important to me is it’s about expanding the possibilities for human experience.
And if we were having this conversation and, you know, people are having coffee or wherever in the morning around the world, and there were a million people living on another planet, I think it would actually redefine what is to be a human being. Like, I just think there’s new emotions and new stories and we’d have long distance love stories from here to Mars and like Penn power relationships with people live literally living on another planet and exposed to a completely different set of cultural norms.
And just like, I think like the evolution humanities vision and what’s possible, um, really is just expanded a lot by, by that goal. So in, as I mentioned earlier, in many ways, I think going to Mars for me is actually one of the greatest art projects of and that’s not to trivialize. Is, it just gets to what it means to be human.
Like what are we actually living and dying and building and breathing in generation after generation? Like, what is it all about? And I think art is physical manifestation of that questioning, um, and, and have that drive and have that plane around. You know, different kind of tensions and societal context and wonder and awe and like what is evolving in front of us.
And so I do think going to Mars in many ways, there’s an expansion of that landscape and will, will actually help us create new art and new experience.
[00:06:47] Nir Hindi: Interesting. I like it. That is the physical manifestation of these ideas. Um, it’s often kind of relate to what I say that, you know, the painting that you see is not, it’s just the end result of the thinking process.
I’m interested to understand because you are partners in life and you’re probably discussing space quite often. What did you discover from seeing Rochelle’s work about your perception or things that you didn’t think about? Through her work, actually, you got the different perspective.
New. I don’t know if revelation, but anyway. Yeah,
[00:07:21] Tim Ellis: I think it’s been from the beginning. We’ve had the pleasure to relativity, even in our main company lobby around our office. We actually have art that we’ve displayed from the beginning. And a lot of it is from Richelle. So. Our whole team, when they’re working on design in rockets and rocket engines and 3d printers and all these products we’re building, uh, you know, you find yourself kind of daydreaming and staring off and looking at art.
And I think, yeah, specifically with her practice and evolution, , I love how it merged. Kind of the science and technology together with the environment. Like for me, it just contextualizes the why I’m doing this and why it actually matters because despite engineering being extremely creative, I think in many ways, art, to some extent in and of itself, it’s even more of a pure expression of just the message that matters.
Like our rocket engines still have a function. There’s still like something it’s doing. It’s mechanical, it’s mechanistic. Uh, you know, it’s a business. Like we have to make money, but I think in her case. Just seeing the message evolve and really asking the questions, like, why go to space? Why save the environment?
Like why, why does that actually matter? And I think it just, yeah, it helps me answer a lot of questions around like, what is the vision of humanity? And I think. At the core of it for me, when, when I see her work, that’s like the question that we’re both trying to ask. It’s like, what is this actually all about?
And how do we guide the future of humanity and in a direction that’s actually sustainable and going to create a better future than the one we’re inheriting. Because I think we do live in a time where that is not a certainty and that’s not been true of all of human history in the past. So tens of thousands of years, it’s almost always been the case that the future is better than the past.
And I think we’re now running up against limits of that because, you know, we are actually saturating the planet’s resources for the first time ever. And so I think like really we have to evolve in this new skill sets. Of collective self-discipline and I think that’s going to be really hard for people to do is get collect collective self-discipline cause people think pretty individually.
And so, and it’s like hardwired in our brain to think that way. And you know, other than maybe Eastern cultures over in Asia, which I think a little bit more collective and I don’t pretend to understand that deeply, but yeah, like collective self-discipline is hard. And I think a big part of it is just getting people to understand the message that this is a limited planet and that we need to find ways to actually inspire more people to be responsible.
[00:10:07] Nir Hindi: Yeah. I see more and more kind of collaborations between scientists and artists kind of to trying to tackle the climate crisis. How we can actually communicate this idea because everyone knows, at least the majority knows that there is a climate crisis. And the question is why would that. Something about it.
So, you know, you mentioned kind of the questions that Richelle raising and it’s kind of in line with things that I often see among artists that they lead with questions. And I wonder if from those interactions you came up with new questions that you will be interested to solve.
[00:10:42] Tim Ellis: Yeah. I have thought a lot about it.
I mean, think first off, just as you’re asking. So we’re me and her show interact as well as she’s actually much more of a scientist artist. Not having the formal background of science, but I don’t have a formal background in art either. So I think, you know, we’ve always thought of our relationship as this Venn diagram of science plus art equals wonder.
And so science is on the left. It’s on the right. And then the middle is wonder. So I think that that’s the intersection that. Because science does a really great job putting structure to the world around us. And you know, there, there are mathematical answers to many things. And I think personally, I think that’s really cool.
Cause you start to look at the world around you and your. I can understand that no matter how hard of a problem, there’s a way to start tackling it and start to put a framework to, to like figuring out how something works. Um, it doesn’t mean we’ll always have the answers cause there’s some really hard problems out there, but we can at least take a stab at it and start to put a data and structure around it.
But then our really does in a very different way. I mean, I think that’s trying to ask questions. I think questions are good at probing kind of the human soul. It’s really more asking questions that don’t necessarily have concrete or data-driven answers. And so I think science does a good job at putting structured to chaos.
And then art does a good job. Getting clarity where there’s no right answer. Um, and then the intersection of those, I think is what creates wonder, it’s this kind of mix of like realizing you actually came to the limit of what science can answer. And there’s actually more beyond that. And I think that’s just pretty, misdefined slash exciting for humans.
Cause you, you feel you’re on the edge of like discovering something new. And I think that’s what a lot of being humans all about.
[00:12:38] Nir Hindi: I love it. You know, she told me a very nice story that you actually, you two thought about opening an Art and science gallery. They actually had the first name relativity. Yeah, that’s
[00:12:50] Tim Ellis: right.
Yeah. So that’s actually the story. That’s a real story of how relativity came up. Um, so I was working for, uh, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, um, his company, blue origin up in Seattle. Uh, we, we were, you know, Richelle was off doing like, I think like a dozen different residencies. Um, so she was really the nomadic artist at the time.
We were doing long distance officially in our relationship after college. So she’d come to visit Seattle and. Yeah, like kind of got ignited with this idea of art plus science. And it was definitely driven by our relationship and then realizing this was a big idea that we felt had to be shared. And so, yeah, we almost signed a lease actually to start this art science gallery.
We wrote the business plan. It’s in a binder. I still have it. And it was a Venn diagram. It was the art plus science equals wonder, and it was going to be called relativity gallery. I, I basically calculated how I can lose a bunch of money on that and you actually save in taxes. So it was like it was going to be very painful financially.
And it was probably in hindsight, not the world’s greatest business idea, perhaps, but I’m glad I started relativity space, I guess we’ll say it that way. Yeah. We, we were going to do this and it was pretty exciting, but I think that’s actually, quite frankly, even though it didn’t happen in my, not yet. Oh, we will, we will do it and Richelle.
It kind of has. In some ways. She now started a art science gallery on called supercollider and she’s involved in other kind of projects like beyond earth and different collectives. And yeah, I would say like she is, you know, still continuing that thread. But, um, that gave me the entrepreneurship bug was realizing, Hey, actually writing this business plan and finding a lease and thinking about strategy and branding and like how we can do events and what would be cool to do.
Like, I think that really stirred that kind of passion for entrepreneurship and me, and then ultimately resulted in realizing, Hey, I actually love my job, but maybe I want to start a company and try this. Great.
[00:14:59] Nir Hindi: And I wonder, you just mentioned entrepreneurship. Do you see similarities between the way you work as an entrepreneur to the way Michelle work as an
[00:15:08] Tim Ellis: artist?
A hundred percent. And we, yeah. It’s like no question. Yeah, because yeah. In many ways like, and specifically, you know, fat founder entrepreneurs, I think, um, I, you know, I’ve found there’s a very big difference between being a founder and even being a first employee. I would say, like, I do think being a founder.
It’s a pretty raw spot. Like you gotta, you gotta put your soul on a pedestal and get people to believe in it. You have to hire, you know, people to join your team. You have to get investors, you have to get customers and you will get rejected so many times. It’s not even funny. Um, and so you gotta be very resilient.
I think art is an entrepreneurial career and. Getting collectors. And especially if you really want to make decent money as an artist and a living like it’s really hard. And like, cause you, you know, have gallery representation and you know, they take a pretty big percent of the sales, but they help with, you know, finding clients and et cetera.
And that’s a similar process. When I talk with Richelle about it, it feels similar to getting venture capital investors, to believe in you and to sponsor you and buy into what you’re doing. In many ways you’re like your own CEO because you, do you need to think about, you know, how much does it cost to make a painting?
Like, what is your brand, what is your story marketing like the selling the dream and the vision as an artist? I think there are tons of parallels in many, many different situations. And as I’ve seen it, you know, artists all have very different kind of goals. I don’t think everyone desires to be like, uh, you know, Alex Israel, like some super commercially successful artist, but I definitely have seen, been able to meet like Alex Israel and people, people like that that are big in the art community.
Um, on the commercial side and stuff really clear. They’re very good at business. Like they’re very good at understanding brands and that kind of thing. But I think on the more. Like, yeah, there’s kind of building great work side, I think even that you need to access this very kind of self-reflective self-aware.
You know, visionary space and put yourself out there and not be afraid of getting critique and then improving and learning from it. And I think that open-mindedness and resilience to sometimes getting negative feedback, but like going and improving is a big part of entrepreneurship as well as art.
[00:17:38] Nir Hindi: Yeah, totally.
I guess, you know, I’m not sure, but I will, I will mention this anecdote you participated in Y Combinator accelerator program and poll. Actually study painting and even wrote the book, hackers and painters, even though he’s very famous for the entrepreneurship and technology, he has great, excellent articles on his blog.
Speaking about art. At least the story goes that when he was young, he used to kind of work for a startup, quit, go to paint and he study painting in academiade bellas artes in Venice and then in Rhode Island school of design. So yeah. In other anecdotes. Yeah.
[00:18:19] Tim Ellis: Yeah. I didn’t realize that. And Paul Graham
extremely extremely observant. Um, I think he’s one of the best writers in the entire startup community. I mean just his style of writing and how insightful he is. Almost every sentence is a poem. It’s very truth. Like getting at the core truth of the truth of things. So yeah, I think. Super fascinating to know that he’s he’s into art and to your point, I think there’s a lot more intersections than people are.
[00:18:49] Nir Hindi: So wait, I want to ask you over here. So w why they such a separation between art and the world of business? For years, the business world looked down upon artists. You know, these image of the crazy artists that, you know, they’re lazy. They, you know, they don’t know what they want and which are extremely the opposite.
Dell super committed. They’re hard workers yeah, it has to be over here.
[00:19:15] Tim Ellis: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s a great question. I dunno, I have the clearest answer on it. I think it just comes down to better society.
Like what are the incentives from society and kind of, how do we reward things? And I think, for better or worse, I do think there’s some collateral damage in it. We’re just becoming even more capitalistic as a world, right? Like I think. Money, it kind of makes the world go around and especially in business and startups, like, like the, the overall transformation of the global economy by technology is creating some of the biggest kind of success stories ever really, especially over the last decade.
So you get disruption in payments with Stripe and Bitcoin and Coinbase and. Tons of companies develops that are super disruptive. And I think there’s just so much focus on making money and that’s like the Princey of value, but I think that’s very shortsighted. Like I do agree that that’s very short-sighted because I think, you know, our artists and it’s almost like how we viewed the environment, I guess.
Like, I, I kind of liken it to that. National parks and the environment and our oceans are absolutely gorgeous. You could, in many ways almost view them as natural works of art that we are ruining for unfettered growth as a society and so I think that’s where it gets to the collective.
Self-discipline are we capable of as a species of actually valuing things that are. Just a kind of raw progress forward at all costs. Um, and I would like to believe, and I know me and Richelle talk a lot about this. I would like to believe there is a world where we can actually make it better.
Each successive generation for the next, you know, thousands of years without having to compromise. I guess it’s like a way of answering your question is it feels like other things that, you know, make huge businesses or entrepreneurship, like that’s so sexy. And so in Vogue right now, and there’s like, idolization of people that have built these great on enterprises, but I think.
We could potentially see it in the future. Like as art is really having a big impact, like it’s more about the impact. And I think we need to switch from a society that just cares about dollars to one that cares about impact. And actually we leadership and leading the human species.
[00:21:45] Nir Hindi: And first of all, that’s what you’re doing with your company.
So we already have at least two, at least one person doing, I have kind of more questions and I know we are short on time. I’m interested. How do you foster creativity in your own company now that you have 400 employees? How do you foster experimentation inventiveness that often for me, goes hands in hands with that.
[00:22:10] Tim Ellis: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a, that’s a great question. I think, so it’s harder and harder to do at scale. So to be clear, we’re 400 people now we’re only 120 people at the beginning of COVID. So the last year and a half we’ve tripled more than tripled.
So it’s, it’s been a wild ride. Yeah. And even a year before that, I think we were only. 40 people. And then a year before that we were 14. So three years ago we were 14 people. So it’s been a wild ride, like lots of fast growth. And I think when you’re growing at that speed, the best way to get creativity starts with who you let in the door.
So like who you are. So we’re very, very careful about being sure we’re hiring people that have high, like EEQ as well as our brilliance. So we care a lot about people that come in with creativity, empathy, they care about people, but they’re wicked smart. Yeah. Very high kind of growth mindset and like want to learn new things and learn new things very fast.
So I think, in many ways, like I set the tone for that and what we’re looking for. But then even then once you have the people I think to do it, you have to kind of remove. A few ways I’ve found to get creativity. Like the first is you need to actually empower people to make decisions and be able to fail.
Like you can’t make all the decisions for it, for your team and for your employees. Otherwise they won’t actually see the ramifications of what new creative thing they’re trying to do and not work. And the other is you really want to reward people like not punish people when they try some crazy ideas.
Um, that doesn’t work. You, you actually want to reward that even though it hurts and it’s hard for the company and maybe slows you down temporarily, you have to be very conscious that you’re rewarding that behavior because the second you start punishing. And saying you care about creativity, but then you get mad at people for being creative and failing very quickly stops working.
Um, and I’ve found to you, you can do it right 20 times and then one time do it wrong. And no one remembers the 19 you did it right. They only remember the one you did it wrong. So it is a high bar for leadership to be consistent and to never really slip on that. And so I think, you know, Kind of how I encourage it.
Um, and then, you know, otherwise I just really, really, really pushed people to think audaciously and to ask, you know, what is actually possible and always question the boundary of what’s possible. Like we have done things like build a brand new rocket engine that’s all 3d printed. And then put it on the test, stand and fired it for a full duration test.
In five days later, to be clear that would normally take in a normal rocket company like eight months or nine months. And we did it in five days. It was super risky. Like the odds of us blowing up the engine were probably very, very. But I trust that it’s not just a wild gamble though. There’s some smarts behind it.
Like the thinking there is that you actually have a really smart team. And especially in our industry with rockets and aerospace engineers, people are really conservative, but they’re also very talented. So I think a lot of people over index and worry about taking risk, um, when the truth is that they probably engineered it right from the beginning.
And if we actually take big swings making things go faster, more than likely it will actually work. Um, so this is, if you follow the space X he’d see them blowing up star ship left and right. And you know, it looks like failure after failure after failure, but man, they’re learning fast. Um, and it, I think I’ve found in startups is all about rate of learning.
Um, and there’s interesting studies, like the best one I’ve found, which is really interesting, which is in the art world. And I’m finding is exactly true in the engineering world. Is there was a psychology study that broke two groups of people making clay pot.
Um, from an art class and one direction to one group was make the highest quality pot possible that you can over like an hour. And then the direction to the other group was make as many pots as you possibly can per hour. And that’s all they said. So one was volume of work. The other was quality. What was super interesting is the group.
Uh, was given the task of making as much as you possibly can, of course, made a lot more. And they were actually higher quality than the group that was just tasked with making high quality. So in many ways, I think that, that to me just says, making a lot of things and pushing forward and learning from your, your mistakes or volume of work actually makes you better, faster, cause you learn faster and I’ve found that that’s true in engineering as
[00:26:45] Nir Hindi: well. Yeah. I love it. I love it. I, and we will put the link to the research study. I will ask it from you and I would put it in the show notes. Um, it goes hands in hands with their ideation.
You know, one of the things that I speak about this. Practicing ideation muscle. I mean, often in corporates to see that once a year, they do two hours ideation workshop, and they think that from these two hours employee supposed to be all original. Now, the thing is that when you look at artists in scientists and invent, or you see the.
It direct relation in correlation with the quantity, the more you produce, the better it’s become. So how we can actually integrate it into the day-to-day of the company coming up with more and more ideas. I love this example. We are getting into the end of the podcast. Honestly, I feel that we can continue to talk.
[00:27:45] Tim Ellis: it’s an awesome topic and it’s one. Yeah. I haven’t gotten to talk as much about seared. Yeah. You’re one of the first, which is fantastic. And yeah, I’d love to do it more cause I think it’s actually the driving reason really behind me wanting to start a company. Like I, I feel it for me.
A huge art project. And then of course Richelle and her work and a career trajectory, and now she wants to be an astronaut and that’s like, yeah, she’s like off doing like pretty amazing things. And it’s inspiring. And I think, yeah, I feel lucky to have a partner that, yeah, we kind of each push each other in or on an adventure, but it’s not a competitive and you know, of course she’s forging her own path working pretty independently from me on a day-to-day basis, but then they kind of come home and just get to share the day’s adventures and learning. So it’s
[00:28:40] Nir Hindi: great. And so you already have at least one artist in your company and Richelle, are you planning to lunch space? Relativity artist-in-residence program?
[00:28:52] Tim Ellis: Yeah, no, that’s a good question. I, yeah, I’ll I’ll think of something. I mean, yeah, Rochelle and some of the beyond earth work that, uh, the collective has done that’s displayed in our company is a big one. I’m sure we’ll have stuff cooking now.
Cause it, yeah, to me, it’s it is important to do and yeah, we’ve, I’ve been focused cause we’re growing like absolute crazy, so pretty, pretty busy on that stuff, but yeah. No, I think it’s important. Yeah. W we actually have a very visible global stage and a lot of people are interested in, in the space industry right now.
So I think it is a great place to actually have it be a visible platform for artists. And yeah, whereas it we’re seeing it from other artists and people being selected to like fly to space right now. You know, I know Richelle working to be an astronaut and then make art about the experience.
So I think we’re living in a cool time for
[00:29:45] Nir Hindi: sure. Yeah. So last question. If there is someone that listening to us and say, you know, ah, it’s creativity, I’m not creative, it’s not for me. What would you tell them?
[00:29:56] Tim Ellis: I mean, if they say art is not for them, I would definitely challenge that. It’s like, do you not love film or movies or music?
Um, because of course those are our art forms too. It’s not just visual arts. I think it’s anything that really stirs your soul. And it’s like something that, yeah, it makes you feel alive and makes it feel worthwhile to be a human being. So yeah. At its core, every human has a desire to connect with something more than just the kind of like practical world that’s right in front of them. And I think. That’s where art has a big, big impact. So I would, I would argue no one truly doesn’t care about. All right. Yeah. And if you do, maybe, maybe, maybe you should, uh, yeah. I don’t know, go on a vacation or something.
[00:30:49] Nir Hindi: Tim Ellis co-founder and CEO of relativity space
I really appreciate it.
And for joining us and sharing all these wonderful conversation. Thank you.
[00:31:05] Tim Ellis: All right. Awesome. Thanks NIR for having me on. Appreciate it.