Science is becoming cool again in Silicon Valley and that means the reemergence of funds from Silicon Valley for “tough problems” like energy innovation, though at a much smaller level than the cleantech boom of years past. On Tuesday, nuclear startup Transatomic Power announced that it has closed a seed round of $2 million from the Founders Fund’s newly-launched science-focused fund FF Science.
The Founders Fund is the firm behind some of the more successful Internet startups out there including Facebook, Yammer and Spotify, but also some science-focused companies such as Climate Corporation, Space-X and satellite startup Planet Labs. The fund, which was created by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and his partners, promotes this manifesto: “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
Transatomic Power was founded in 2011 by MIT nuclear scientists Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, and the company is at the early stage of developing a molten salt nuclear reactor, which can use nuclear waste as a power source. Molten salt reactors were first developed at Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) in the 1950s and 60s, but Dewan and Massie have developed created new designs, and new materials for the older tech.
Dewan tells me in an interview that her team will use the seed funding to run tests on key materials, particularly the salts, to study corrosion effects, and further analyze the design. “The timing is right for us in a lot of ways,” said Dewan on the Founders Fund financing. She notes that more people are starting to feel the effects of climate change, and that the conversation has around nuclear energy’s role in fighting global warming is starting to change.
Founders Fund and Transatomic connected through a couple sources. Founder’s Fund Chief Scientist Aaron VanDevender is a former MIT grad, and Transatomic advisor Ray Rothrock is also a longtime Valley venture capitalist. Transatomic is one of the first investments from FF Science.
For several years now venture capitalists have shied away from making large energy technology bets, in the wake of some weak returns and high-profile bankruptcies from companies like Solyndra and Fisker Automotive. But there have been some big successes, too, like Tesla Motors, SolarCity, Opower and others.
While I wouldn’t expect the same level of investing from Silicon Valley in energy as happened during the cleantech years, it’s promising to see some of these well-established early stage firms make some of these riskier bets.