Honoring America’s Nuclear Innovators

By Ray Rothrock

The United States is a leader on innovation.  American innovators created technologies that have literally changed the world – the light bulb, the airplane, the integrated circuit, the digital computer, and the modern Internet.  I’m proud to have played a role in continuing this tradition.  As a venture capitalist, personal investor, and CEO of a technology company, I’ve worked with innovators from all walks of life to create new products that solve emerging problems or deliver new capabilities.  As we celebrate Nuclear Innovation Week, it’s worth considering how nuclear fits into America’s proud history of innovation.

America’s innovation ecosystem is at its best when our brightest are put to work to solve the most pressing problems facing the world.  For example, the world needs innovations to help solve the dual challenges of global energy poverty and climate change.  With the global population growing from 7.4 billion today to more than 9 billion by 2040, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects global energy demand will grow by 30% over the next 22 years.  That is, the IEA notes, “the equivalent of adding another China and India to today’s global demand.”  To meet that energy demand without destroying the planet, we’ll need to deploy massive amounts of carbon free power.  That power will need to be available day and night, at a reasonable cost, and available in parts of the world not currently served.  That is why I am proud to support the development of the next generation of nuclear technologies that meet the increasing global demand for carbon emissions-free power.   

We know that nuclear power can help meet this challenge going forward because it is helping to meet today’s energy challenges.  Nuclear power is an American invention (by immigrants) that currently provides the majority of our country’s emissions free electricity, as it has for decades.  Without the existing nuclear fleet, our carbon emissions – as well as air pollution – would be much higher.  But like every industry, nuclear must continue to innovate, to adapt its products to an evolving marketplace, and to play a meaningful role in a low carbon, high energy future.  Today’s nuclear entrepreneurs are rising to this challenge by developing innovative technologies to meet tomorrow’s energy needs at competitive costs.

As a former nuclear engineer, I can tell you that these technologies are pretty impressive.  But the more exciting part of the nuclear innovation ecosystem is the people working to bring these technologies to market.  These innovators are as smart, driven, and passionate as any entrepreneurs I’ve worked with in my many years in venture capital.  They’re motivated by making a deep and lasting contribution to the world.  Their energy and optimism are contagious.  They will not be stopped.  In 2014 there were 46 nuclear energy startups.  Today there are 77!

Nuclear Innovation Week is an opportunity to honor the innovators who are creating tomorrow’s nuclear energy technologies.  This includes the scientists at America’s national laboratories and working in our current fleets, the professors pushing their students to think big, the investors willing to fund new ideas, and the entrepreneurs working urgently on caffeine and faith that an abundant clean energy future is not just possible, but essential.  Solving the dual challenges of energy poverty and climate change will not be easy, but the more I work with nuclear innovators, the more confident I am that we will have the tools to create the high energy, low carbon future the world needs.

We need nuclear – sooner rather than later. The math around this need and opportunity is perfectly clear.  Nuclear Innovation Week gives us a glimpse of what is in store. Please join me in honoring these innovators who are leading the way for the future.  

Ray Rothrock, Chief Executive Officer of RedSeal, Partner Emeritus at Venrock, and former Chair of the National Venture Capital Association is a member of the Nuclear Matters Advisory Council, the DOE GAIN Executive Advisory Board, the DOE Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, and founding board member of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.