AmberWave Rises Again as Solar Startup: Insights from Investor Russ Wilcox

6/7/12Follow @gthuang

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suited for residential rooftops where space is limited and you want more bang for the buck. For starters, AmberWave could license its technology to big solar-cell manufacturers. Wilcox says the sales pitch is basically, “Take your existing factory and add two machines.” He adds, “I see that as imminently achievable.” (A precedent might be Innovalight, a Silicon Valley company that developed a new coating for solar cells that improves electron extraction by adding just one machine to the fab. The company had a successful exit last year when it was bought by DuPont.)

Meanwhile, Wilcox isn’t afraid to take the reins of a cleantech project whose sales are quite a bit further down the road. As the CEO of Transatomic Power, he is leading a startup that is trying to build a new kind of nuclear reactor—one that dissolves nuclear waste from existing reactors into a molten salt that, in principle, can be used to fuel fission reactions more efficiently than the solid fuel pellets used in conventional light water reactors. (The new reactor’s name, the Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor, reminds me of Marvin the Martian’s “Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator.”)

As Wilcox explains, the basic principle behind the new reactor design was demonstrated successfully more than 50 years ago at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. But the conventional design used today took off because of politics, he says: In the 1950s, President Eisenhower and the U.S. agreed to give other countries access to nuclear power in exchange for not developing nuclear weapons. That meant the U.S. “had to have an immediate product,” Wilcox says—which turned out to be the light water design used in the country’s early nuclear-powered submarines, which has had its share of problems.

A fascinating history lesson, to be sure. I pressed Wilcox for some lessons of his own—what did he learn from his 13 years at E Ink that he can apply to a totally different field?

The first thing is capital efficiency, he says. “Big projects take capital. The trick is not to raise it too soon, because you’ll spend it.” (E Ink raised eight venture rounds for a total of some $150 million in its day.) The second thing is risk-taking. “Don’t be afraid of risks, everybody has risks,” he says. “Take your riskiest aspects first. Confront your risks straight away and don’t delay.”

That said, Wilcox appears to be in cleantech for the long haul. “Nuclear reactors is a game of many years,” he says.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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