Xconomy Voices, Episode 3: Nathan Myhrvold and TerraPower

Xconomy National — 

We’re pleased to bring you the third episode of Xconomy Voices, our new podcast featuring conversations with entrepreneurs, innovators, and investors from Xconomy’s home cities and regions.

This week our guest is Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft chief technology officer who, since 2000, has headed Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue, WA-based firm that buys, develops, and licenses technology patents and other intellectual property.

Myhrvold spoke about Intellectual Ventures’ mission and business model at Xconomy’s Napa Summit in June, and we caught up with him there. He has so many interests and projects that we could easily have spent the entire conversation talking about nature photography or food photography or dinosaur paleontology or modernist cuisine or bread.

But the talk quickly turned to nuclear power, a technology that has long fascinated Myhrvold, in part due to his concern about greenhouse gas-induced warming of the atmosphere.

“The status quo is we are putting more and more CO2 into the atmosphere,” Myhrvold says. “We’ve not had a single year where CO2 emissions were flat, much less declining. So at present you have to say, look, we know we’re going to get into a problem in the long run. We can’t take a risk-free approach. We’re risking a lot with what we do now! So that means let’s look at nuclear again. Let’s look at with fresh eyes and come up with something new.”

In 2008 Intellectual Ventures formed a subsidiary called TerraPower to do just that. The company is exploring proposed reactor designs such as the traveling wave reactor and the molten salt reactor to find one that would be more cost-competitive and less accident-prone than past models of nuclear reactors.

Myhrvold is vice chairman of TerraPower, and he’s proud of the company’s leadership role in developing next-generation nuclear power, at a time when federal investment in clean energy technology is waning and there are high financial, regulatory, and political hurdles to building new nuclear plants in the United States.

“The challenge with energy is that the current infrastructure is so cheap, and there’s no leadership from the government, or very little anyway, to help support nascent technologies before they’re economic,” Myhrvold says. “So we’re going to have to keep doing that ourselves until it’s economic, without any extra subsidies, without any cap and trade or any other incentives. And that’s difficult. But I don’t think it’s impossible.”

In 2015 TerraPower inked a deal with China’s National Nuclear Corporation to build a prototype reactor in Fujian province in southeast China by 2025. And it’s working with researchers at Idaho National Laboratory and other national labs in the United States on parts of the technical puzzle, including the fabrication of fuel samples from depleted uranium, a waste product from other commercial reactors.

But so far, nearly a decade in, the company hasn’t begun construction on any new plants. That makes it an unusual kind of startup—one with a remarkably long time horizon (one luxury of having investors like Bill Gates, who’s also the company’s chairman).

“You need to set expectations appropriately,” says Myhrvold. “Both with the people in the company—if they think that it’s going to be like WhatsApp and you get bought for billions of dollars next week, it isn’t—[and] you need to set expectations with investors, that this is something that is a long-term investment that we think has enormous positive financial results and enormous positive results for the world. So it’s worth supporting, but it isn’t for everybody.”

To learn more about TerraPower and Myhrvold’s hopes for the company, listen to our conversation above. (You can also read the full transcript here.)

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