Nuclear Startup Transatomic Power Lands $2M From Founders Fund

Transatomic Power wants to build a new type of nuclear reactor, an endeavor that could take many years and hundreds of millions of dollars. Today, the startup is announcing that it’s landed a venture investor—Founders Fund—willing to bankroll one early step in the journey.

Cambridge, MA-based Transatomic has raised $2 million from FF Science, a portion of Founders Fund’s $1 billion investment pool that is targeted at science- and engineering-based companies. Transatomic, which was started by two former MIT nuclear engineering students, previously raised about $1.5 million, mostly from angel investors.

The company’s vision is to create reliable, carbon-free power from the hundreds of thousands of tons of spent fuel piling up at nuclear stations around the world. The new money will be used to refine Transatomic’s computer simulations and test the materials the startup intends to use in its molten salt reactor, which it hopes will be able to generate electricity from the radioactive waste produced by conventional nuclear power plants.

Leslie Dewan

Dewan
Credit: Ellen Harasimowicz

The company is still doing technical research, but the investors at San Francisco-based Founders Fund were comfortable with the long timeline and hefty capital requirements Transatomic presented, says Leslie Dewan, a co-founder who recently became CEO. “Founders Fund and FF Science were the [investors] we clicked with. Everyone is on the same page in recognizing that it might take a long time, but if it comes to fruition, it will be amazing for the world,” she says.

Founders Fund has experience with this kind of long-running startup vision: the firm previously backed SpaceX, which took nearly a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars to make the Falcon 9 rocket. Transatomic is roughly on the same schedule and has similar capital needs, Dewan notes. In its manifesto, Founders Fund argues that many venture capitalists are backing companies that produce incremental changes, rather than breakthrough technologies, which has hurt returns over the past decade. Its catchphrase is: “We wanted flying cars. We got 140 characters.”

Transatomic will work with universities, including MIT, to test its materials and getter better data on the performance and corrosiveness of the materials it intends to use. That testing will take about a year. Then it will need to do further experiments and start planning for a prototype and demonstration-scale facility.

There are a handful of nuclear startups pursuing alternatives to the light-water reactor design used in power plants now, including a few trying nuclear fusion. These ventures face serious hurdles in finding investors willing to back them. Money from federal labs in the U.S. is difficult, too, since that research is geared at refining existing systems, rather than completely different reactor designs. Beyond the technical risk, there’s also a great deal of uncertainly regarding how long and whether new reactor designs will approved by regulators.

Transatomic’s planned reactor would dissolve spent nuclear fuel in a tank of molten salt, rather than submerge fuel in water as today’s plants do. In the case of an emergency shut-down, the liquid salt would drain into a holding tank below the main reactor vessel and cool itself within a few hours.

Bellevue, WA-based TerraPower, which is financed by Bill Gates, is also designing a reactor that uses the substantial amount of energy that resides in nuclear waste. Executives have said they intend to build a first reactor outside the U.S., in countries where governments are willing to fund first-of-a-kind energy projects.

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