More from the world of venture capital :
Almost all of that is way too millenial for me, but it does raise the question: what is UPower? and Y Combinator, for that matter?
Let’s start with the second part first:
When Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham passed the keys of his uber-successful seed accelerator program to Sam Altman in February, he did so with an eye on the future.
Graham’s interest was largely in internet startups, but Altman seems to have a taste for nuclear energy and biotech:
“I’ve always loved it when we can fund companies that, if we don’t fund them, they won’t exist,” Altman said in an interview with Re/code on Tuesday. “No one is funding energy, and I think it’s a good business and really important for the world.
“Really important for the world.” It has kind of an adolescent twang to it – though he is is, after all, right. That tone, though, seems contagious. Here’s Helion Energy’s David Kirtley talking about fusion:
“Fusion is fundamentally safe. There’s no chance of meltdown, no carbon dioxide. But at the same time, it’s really hard.” The crowd chuckled. “It’s really hard,” Dr. Kirtley repeated.
It’s actually kind of charming and brings venture capitalism and nuclear energy closer to a youthful impulse to change the world - it may be really hard, but it’s really important. Although Y Combinator invests some money into the startups it supports, its main function is to get the companies together with venture capitalists and other investors.
The startups move to Silicon Valley for 3 months, during which we work intensively with them to get the company into the best possible shape and refine their pitch to investors. Each cycle culminates in Demo Day, when the startups present their companies to a carefully selected, invite-only audience.
That brings us to UPower, which presented its idea on one of these demo days.
“Our target demographic is people off the grid,” says Jacob DeWitte, UPower CEO and co-founder. “Think of remote communities in the Northern Arctic or Canada. All of these places that aren’t connected to large continental grids rely on diesel generators for energy. … We can bring them power in a small package and get them energy they couldn’t have before.”
These aren’t small reactors, with which they clearly have some commonality, but personal nuclear reactors. I took a look at UPower’s web site to get a fuller sense of it. It’s a trifle vague at this point.
UPower technology enables an always on, container-sized, truly carbon-free and emission-free nano-nuclear battery for remote and distributed generation where energy costs can exceed 30 cents/kWh, and power is needed 24/7. The generator is a containerized unit that provides over a decade of energy without refueling, and can generate electricity for 40% less than competing technologies in these markets. The UPower generator is powered by a unique compact, solid state, micro reactor that produces over 1 MW and can cogenerate process heat.
Sort of like a less intrusive solar panel on the roof. If I understand correctly, the reactor uses thorium and tungsten (formed into a “pixie stick”-like fuel rod) and is cooled by a “proprietary technology” – a heat sink, perhaps. Vague, yes, but early enough to keep questions about regulating and licensing these items at bay – not to mention non-proliferation concerns. All in good time.
I’ve been intrigued to see venture capital extend itself into the nuclear world. On first blush, it seems an extension of the interest in green technologies. Altman says as much and notes that investors have been spooked by the collapse of a few such companies – maybe that caused the turn to nuclear energy, which is green and mature, though Altman doesn’t say so.
If the idea of micro reactors sounds unlikely, consider biotech:
Glowing Plant, another startup in the biotech space, is focused on the genetically modified plant market, making “living air fresheners that don’t need chemical replacement cartridges, real cow’s milk without the need for dairy farming, and the ability to turn plants into useful fuel.”
Writers Kurt Wagner and Lauren Goode note that the audience hearing the Glowing Plant pitch were clearly uneasy with it – because it introduces ethical and moral issues regarding genetic tampering. The name Glowing Plant is almost provocative in this context. Even if you think fear of Dr. Moreau-like horrors is overblown, running these ideas past the public can be difficult.
All these ideas seem both promising and outlandish. They can be how the future is made or springboards to more practical applications (or complete dead ends, to be honest). What Y Combinator does is a working definition of “early days.” It’s interesting to see nuclear energy in the mix.