More Valley investors are funding nuclear energy tech

A metallic case called a hohlraum holds the fuel capsule for NIF experiments. Target handling systems precisely position the target and freeze it to cryogenic temperatures (18 kelvins, or -427 degrees Fahrenheit) so that a fusion reaction is more easily achieved.

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.

While apps like Yo continue to get funded, so do, surprisingly, some early stage nuclear energy startups. Earlier this month it was nuclear startup Transatomic Power with funding from Founders Fund, and this week Tech Crunch reports that a nuclear startup called Helion Energy has raised $1.5 million from Y Combinator and Mithril Capital Management. Y Combinator, of course, is the accelerator program that has become synonymous with the quick-flip, social media apps of the last few years. Mithril is a growth stage investment firm.

Nuclear power plant

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 is looking to use its fusion reactors to one day build smaller more distributed power plants. We covered the startup back in 2009, when it was looking to raise a $20 million round. Helion Energy’s then-President Philip Wallace told us back then that the company planned to build a full-scale prototype by 2011 or 2012, and a commercial engine within a “decade.” The company has been trying to raise tens of millions of dollars over the years, which has probably been a particularly hard task given that venture capitalists spent 2010 to 2013 shying away from these more risky energy investments.

A close up Transatomic Power's nuclear reactor design, image courtesy of Transatomic.

A close up Transatomic Power’s nuclear reactor design, image courtesy of Transatomic.

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.

The traditional nuclear industry is in a dire state right now, following the Fukushima disaster in Japan. French nuclear giant Areva just posted a truly abysmal quarter. That desperate state could be both good and bad for nuclear tech innovators. Nuclear companies might feel the need to invest in the next-generation of nuclear tech to help revitalize it. But then again, lacking funds, might lead to less R&D, not more.

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.

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