Summary: A growing amount of Valley investors are eying nuclear startups. Is this a smart trend or the mistakes of the cleantech boom all over again?
Investing in science and energy innovation is slowly swinging back into fashion in Silicon Valley. It seems like this is partly because of a backlash against the idea that Silicon Valley hasn’t been funding the world’s more difficult problems, and instead has been making easy money on things like social media apps. However, that doesn’t mean I think these more difficult investments will make investors the type of money that they’re used to.
Helion Energy is developing nuclear fusion technology, which has long been the holy grail of energy, and scientists have spent billions of dollars researching it for over 60 years. While traditional nuclear fission works by splitting atoms, nuclear fusion works by joining two atoms together, unleashing lots of light and heat. At its core, this is how the Sun works.
While fusion has worked in labs, the big trick is to get fusion to happen without requiring more energy to start it up than is delivered. Earlier this year Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers said they’d reached that milestone: the fuel used to create fusion in their reactor was indeed capable of producing more energy than it required to launch.
Helion Energy was founded by four scientists at MSNW, a spin-off from the University of Washington. The company won an award from the Cleantech Open last year and also received $4 million from the Department of Energy.
Just to make clear, $1.5 million from Y Combinator and Mithril is a drop in the bucket for a nuclear startup. The company will need a lot more money than that to get anywhere close to commercialization. Other nuclear startups that tech investors have shown interest in include TerraPower, backed by Bill Gates, and General Fusion, backed by VCs and Jeff Bezos.
At the same time, nuclear energy is starting to see growing public support now that several years have passed after Fukushima and that climate change is becoming an increasingly worrisome issue. While many environmentalists have been staunchly anti-nuclear, because of the waste and exposure issues, more and more environmentalists are starting to support nuclear as one of the only carbon emissions-free forms of base load power.