Dr. Leslie Dewan, CEO Transatomic Power
Zürich – Die Debatte über neue Atomkraftwerke wird vor allem wegen der immer noch ungelösten Frage der Abfall-Entsorgung blockiert. Transatomic Power, unter anderem von Daniel Aegerter’s Armada Investment unterstützt, sucht neue Wege, um den Abfall zu neuer Energie zu wandeln. Die Trillionen Dollar-Wette, welche die Welt verändern könnte.
Interview from Caroline Fairchild, Linkedin.com
Caroline Fairchild: How do you explain to engineering outsiders what you do?
Leslie Dewan: I am extremely lucky in that I have the coolest job imaginable. It involves the coolest, exciting new engineering and business development and the possibility to help people in the long run. We are developing a new type of nuclear reactor that can run entirely on nuclear waste. It is able to consume the waste that is left behind by the current generation of nuclear power plants. It is able to do so very safely and extremely cheaply. Ultimately, we want to be able to design a power plant that is significantly cheaper than coal so we can out compete coal on cost and create vast amounts of clean energy for both the developed and developing world.
How did you come up with the idea for Transatomic Power?
We started playing around with a bunch of different reactor designs while we were still at school and we were excited about forming a company around this technology. We were excited about bringing the design to commercialization fast. By 2011, we had finished an early set of scoping simulations and found out that we could get this type of reactor to maintain criticality using the existing nuclear waste from the typical power plants. We talked to a lot of professors in departments and had them kick the tires on the idea and sort out if they found it viable. They really encouraged us to commercialize it, so we incorporated the company in April 2011 and raised some seed funding at that time.
Why do you think it was a concept that no one thought of before?
Interestingly enough, they came up with a very similar reactor design in the 1950s. In the 1960s they created a prototype that demonstrated that it was extremely safe and straightforward to operate. But it ended up being quite expensive and the technology was abandoned in favor of other designs. The other aspect to this is that for many many decades there was a significant manpower shortage among nuclear engineers. Very few nuclear engineers were entering the field. If you look at the age distribution of nuclear engineers, there are a lot of people in their 60s and 70s and 80s and a lot of people who are newly entering the field in their 20s and 30s. Also, a lot of the materials that we explored were not materialized until the mid 1980s so they were not as frequently used when the original molten salt reactor was formed. We were able to take the original design and change two of the key materials to come up with our design.
Was it difficult to get investor support for the idea?
It is difficult to get funding for a new nuclear reactor design. It takes a long time to bring new nuclear reactors to fruition. For most typical VC firms that have a five to seven year fund, they need to get a return on their investment in five to seven years. But a new nuclear reactor can take ten years easily to commercialize. We raised a round from friends and family fairly straightforwardly and then we spent awhile talking to a range of different VCs and there was a fundamental timing mismatch. We were extremely happy that we were able to work with Founders Fund because we realized it was a good match. They are one of the very few VC firms who has a chief scientist who is a physics Ph.D. One of the things they said early on when we were talking about our long time horizons, they said they were early investors in Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the timelines and dollar amounts for what I was saying matched up pretty closely. So they were familiar with these longer timelines.
Did you meet with anyone who encouraged you to abandon the idea?
There have definitely been some people in the early stage who urged a lot of caution on the regulatory front. They thought the real battle was to make sure there was a regulatory pathway. It is nice that our tech is good, but they couldn’t see a regulatory pathway. So it has been extremely gratifying to see great momentum on the regulatory side for advanced nuclear in the last three years and even in the last three months… I have been spending a lot of time in DC recently, which has been kind of neat learning the regulatory side of it.
As a female founder working in energy, do you feel like you’re working in a male dominated industry?
I went to an all-girl high school and had tremendous physics teachers there. One was the first female nuclear physics Ph.D. from MIT. A lot of my classmates there are also entrepreneurs. The school was instrumental in a lot of ways that I didn’t notice until after the fact. I read an interesting New York Times study a couple years ago that talked about how women, when they take STEM courses at a university for the first time, are a lot more reticent than their male peers. This doesn’t apply to women who are homeschooled or go to an all-girl’s school. That is something that must have affected me somehow. It was interesting coming from that environment to MIT undergrad which was 60 to 65 percent male and then grad school in nuclear which is 90 percent male. I was often the only woman in my class, but it never really managed to affect me.
What is your advice for entrepreneurs who are looking to gain support for a controversial idea?
That is something that we have been very thoughtful about from the early days. How do we maintain openness? We have always wanted to be very open about the technology and explain as clearly as possible the aspects of the technology. There is a lot of fear in the general public around nuclear power and uncertainty because it is extremely new. Commercial nuclear power has existed for just about seventy years now. It places an extra obligation on nuclear engineers to be very open and forthcoming about the work. It’s helped us that we are not only explaining what we are doing, but why we are doing it. We are doing this because we want to make a better source of carbon-free electricity. We are doing this because we want to get rid of coal power.