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Claiming a landmark in fusion energy, TAE Technologies sees commercialization by 2030

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In a small industrial park located nearly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, one company is claiming to have hit a milestone in the development of a new technology for generating power from nuclear fusion.

The twenty year old fusion energy technology developer TAE Technologies said its reactors could be operating at commercial scale by the end of the decade, thanks to its newfound ability to produce stable plasma at temperatures over 50 million degrees (nearly twice as hot as the sun), .

The promise of fusion energy, a near limitless energy source with few emissions and no carbon footprint, has been ten years out for the nearly seventy years since humanity first harnessed the power of nuclear energy.  But a slew of companies including TAE, General Fusion, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and a host of others across North America and around the world are making rapid advancements that look to bring the technology from the realm of science fiction into the real world.

For TAE Technologies, the achievement serves as a validation of the life’s work of Norman Rostoker, one of the company’s co-founders who had devoted his life to fusion energy research and died before he could see the company he helped create reach its latest milestone.

“This is an incredibly rewarding milestone and an apt tribute to the vision of my late mentor, Norman Rostoker,” said TAE’s current chief executive officer, Michl Binderbauer, in a statement announcing the company’s achievement. “Norman and I wrote a paper in the 1990s theorizing that a certain plasma dominated by highly energetic particles should become increasingly better confined and stable as temperatures increase. We have now been able to demonstrate this plasma behavior with overwhelming evidence. It is a powerful validation of our work over the last three decades, and a very critical milestone for TAE that proves the laws of physics are on our side.”

Rostoker’s legacy lives on inside TAE through the company’s technology platform, called, appropriately, “Norman”. In the last 18 months that technology has demonstrated consistent performance, reaching over 50 million degrees in several hundred test cycles.

Six years ago, the company had proved that its reactor design could sustain plasma indefinitely — meaning that once the switch is flipped on a reaction, that fusion reaction can continue indefinitely. Now, the company said, it has achieved the necessary temperatures to make its reactors commercially viable.

It’s with these milestones behind it that TAE was able to raise an additional $280 million in financing, bringing its total up to $880 million and making it one of the best financed private nuclear fusion endeavors in the world.

“The Norman milestone gives us a high degree of confidence that our unique approach brings fusion within grasp technologically and, more important, economically,” Binderbauer said. “As we shift out of the scientific validation phase into engineering commercial-scale solutions for both our fusion and power management technologies, TAE will become a significant contributor in modernizing the entire energy grid.”

The company isn’t generating energy yet, and won’t for the foreseeable future. The next goal for the company, according to Binderbauer, is to develop the technology to the point where it can create the conditions necessary for making energy from a fusion reaction.

“The energy is super tiny. It’s immaterial. It’s a needle in the haystack,” Binderbauer said. “In terms of its energy discernability, we can use it for diagnostics.”

TAE Technologies Michl Binderbauer standing next to the company’s novel fusion reactor. Image Credit: TAE Technologies

Follow the sun

It took $150 million and five iterations for TAE Technologies to get to Norman, its national laboratory scale fusion device. The company said it conducted over 25,000 fully-integrated fusion reactor core experiments, optimized using machine learning programs developed in collaboration with Google and processing power from the Department of Energy’s INCITE program, which leverages exascale-level computing, TAE Technologies said.

The new machine was first fired up in the summer of 2017. Before it could even be constructed TAE Technologies went through a decade of experimentation to even begin approaching the construction of a physical prototype. By 2008, the first construction began on integrated experiments to make a plasma core and infuse it with some energetic particles. The feeder technology and beams alone cost $100 million, Binderbauer said. Then the company needed to develop other technologies like vacuum conditioning. Power control mechanisms also needed to be put in place to ensure that the company’s 3 megawatt power supply could be stored in enough containment systems to power a 750 megawatt energy reaction.

Finally, machine learning capabilities needed to be tapped from companies like Google and compute power from the Department of Energy had to be harnessed to manage computations that could take what had been the theorems that defined Rostoker’s life’s work, and prove that they could be made real.

“By the time Norman became an operating machine we had four generations of devices preceding it. Out of those there were two fully integrated ones and two generations of incremental machines that could do some of it but not all of it.”

Fusion energy’s burning problems

While fusion has a lot of promise as a zero-carbon source of energy, it’s not without some serious limitations, as Andy Jassby, the former principal physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab noted in a 2017 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article.

Jassby wrote:

Earth-bound fusion reactors that burn neutron-rich isotopes have byproducts that are anything but harmless: Energetic neutron streams comprise 80 percent of the fusion energy output of deuterium-tritium reactions and 35 percent of deuterium-deuterium reactions.

Now, an energy source consisting of 80 percent energetic neutron streams may be the perfect neutron source, but it’s truly bizarre that it would ever be hailed as the ideal electrical energy source. In fact, these neutron streams lead directly to four regrettable problems with nuclear energy: radiation damage to structures; radioactive waste; the need for biological shielding; and the potential for the production of weapons-grade plutonium 239—thus adding to the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, not lessening it, as fusion proponents would have it.

In addition, if fusion reactors are indeed feasible—as assumed here—they would share some of the other serious problems that plague fission reactors, including tritium release, daunting coolant demands, and high operating costs. There will also be additional drawbacks that are unique to fusion devices: the use of a fuel (tritium) that is not found in nature and must be replenished by the reactor itself; and unavoidable on-site power drains that drastically reduce the electric power available for sale.

TAE Technologies is aware of the problems, according to a spokesperson for the firm, and the company has noted the issues Jassby raised in its product development, the spokesperson said.

“All the callouts to tritium is exactly why TAE has been focused on pB-11 as its feedstock from the very beginning (early 90’s).  TAE will reach D-T conditions as a natural stepping stone to pB-11, cause it cooks at ‘only’ 100M c, whereas pB-11 is upwards of 1M c,” the spokesperson wrote in a response. “It would seem like a much harder accomplishment to then scale to 1M, but what this milestone proves is the ‘Scaling law’ for the kind of fusion TAE is generating – in an FRC (the linear design of “Norman”, unlike the donut Tokamaks) the hotter the plasma, the more stable it becomes. It’s the opposite of a [Tokamak].  The milestone gives them scientific confidence they can increase temps beyond DT to pB11 and realize fusion with boron — cheap, aneutronic, abundant — the ideal terrestrial feedstock (let’s not get into mining the moon for helium-3!).”

As for power concerns, the TAE fusion reactor can convert a 2MW grid feed into 750MW shots on the machine without taking down Orange County’s grid (and needing to prove it to SCE), and scale power demand in microseconds to mold and course-correct plasmas in real-time, the spokesperson wrote.

In fact, TAE is going to spin off its power management technology into a separate business focused on peak shaving, energy storage and battery management on the grid and in electric vehicles.

A “safer” fusion technology?

The Hydrogen-Boron, or p-B11, fuel cycle is, according to the company, the most abundant fuel source on earth, and will be the ultimate feedstock for TAE Technologies’ reactor, according to the company. But initially, TAE, like most of the other companies currently developing fusion technologies will be working with Deuterium-Tritium as its fuel source.

The demonstration facility “Copernicus” which will be built using some of the new capital the company has announced raising, will start off on the D-T fuel cycle and eventually make the switch. Over time, TAE hopes to license the D-T technology while building up to its ultimate goal.

Funding the company’s “money by milestone” approach are some fo the world’s wealthiest families, firms, and companies. Vulcan, Venrock, NEA, Wellcome Trust, Google, and the Kuwait Investment Authority are all backers. So too, are the family offices of Addison Fischer, Art Samberg, and Charls Schwab.

“TAE is providing the miracles the 21st century needs,” said Addison Fischer, TAE Board Director and longtime investor who has been involved with conservation and environmental issues for decades. Fischer also founded VeriSign and is a pioneer in defining and implementing security technology underlying modern electronic commerce. “TAE’s most recent funding positions the company to undertake their penultimate step in implementing sustainable aneutronic nuclear fusion and power management solutions that will benefit the planet.”

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Haitian Activist Brings Awareness To Spate Of Violence Rattling Country

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NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with Jimmy Jean-Louis, a Haitian activist and actor who has been calling attention to the recent surge of violence and kidnappings in his country.

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Consumer agency warns against Peloton Tread+ use, as company pushes back

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Almost exactly a month ago, Peloton CEO John Foley wrote an open letter about the the company’s treadmill. “I’m reaching out to you today because I recently learned about a tragic accident involving a child and the Tread+, resulting in, unthinkably, a death,” it begins. “While we are aware of only a small handful of incidents involving the Tread+ where children have been hurt, each one is devastating to all of us at Peloton, and our hearts go out to the families involved.”

Today, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a warning, telling users to stop using the Tread+. Citing 39 incidents, included the aforementioned death, the CPSC writes, “The Commission has found that the public health and safety requires this notice to warn the public quickly of the hazard.”

Peloton followed up with its own strongly worded statement writing, “The company is troubled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) unilateral press release about the Peloton Tread+ because it is inaccurate and misleading. There is no reason to stop using the Tread+, as long as all warnings and safety instructions are followed.”

The commission’s warning includes multiple injuries involving small children and a pet. Specifically, the note calls for users with children at how to cease using the product, a more stern warning than the initial suggestions outlined by Foley back in in March, who at the time told users to keep children and pets away from the system and store the device out of reach after using. Peloton has since added that there have been 23 incidents involving children, 15 with objects and, as the CPSC noted, one with a pet. The company added that it had not revealed the specifics previously out of privacy concern.

“If consumers must continue to use the product, CPSC urges consumers to use the product only in a locked room, to prevent access to children and pets while the treadmill is in use,” the organization notes. “Keep all objects, including exercise balls and other equipment, away from the treadmill.”

For its part, the connected fitness maker adds,

Peloton invited CPSC to make a joint announcement about the danger of not following the warnings and safety instructions provided with the Tread+, and Foley asked to meet directly with CPSC. CPSC has unfairly characterized Peloton’s efforts to collaborate and to correct inaccuracies in CPSC’s press release as an attempt to delay. This could not be farther from the truth. The company already urged Members to follow all warnings and safety instructions. Peloton is disappointed that, despite its offers of collaboration, and despite the fact that the Tread+ complies with all applicable safety standards, CPSC was unwilling to engage in any meaningful discussions with Peloton before issuing its inaccurate and misleading press release.

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Why it’s not surprising to see nine-figure AI rounds 

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Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. If you want it in your inbox every Saturday morning, sign up here

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.

This week, Scale AI raised a $325 million Series E. The company, as TechCrunch has written, works in the data labeling space. And it has been on a fundraising tear over the last few years. In 2019 TechCrunch wrote about how the company’s then-22-year-old CEO had put together a $100 million round. Then in December of 2020, it raised $155 million at a roughly $3.5 billion valuation. Now it’s worth more than $7 billion.

Impressive, yeah? Well, as I learned earlier this week, AI startups in general are having one hell of a year. From the start of 2021 to April 12th, there were 442 AI-startup deals in the U.S. worth $11.65 billion, according to PitchBook data. And the recent Microsoft-Nuance AI deal may accelerate things even more.

Sapphire Ventures’ Jai Das weighed in on the AI venture market for The Exchange. He answered our question regarding how competitive the space was in the first quarter by saying that “investment activity in AI/ML startups has been absolutely insane” during the first quarter.

Per Das: “AI/ML startups are routinely getting 5-6 term sheets from top-tier VC firms and they are able to raise their financings at 150-250X of current ARR.”

Chew on that for a moment. We’ve seen public software multiples reach new heights in the last year, but even for aggressive startup rounds, those are some bonkers numbers. Imagine an AI-focused startup with $1 million in recurring revenue being valued at a quarter of a billion dollars. Damn.

But what about pace among AI investing? We’ve heard that the time from a round opening to its closing among many startups has been compressed and compressed again. Das helped explain the situation, saying in an email that “most firms are completing their due diligence way before the financing actually happens,” which means that there is “no need to do any due diligence during the financing.”

That actually makes some sense? If rounds are largely preemptive — something that Das underscored later on in his comments — you have to do pre-diligence. Otherwise you’ll always be investing blind or missing out on deals due to other firms moving more quickly.

This week The Exchange also dug into the broader domestic venture capital market, with a special focus on seed deals, and the super late-stage investments that dominate headlines. A comment on the earlier-stages of venture investing that just missed our piece on the matter came from Jeff Grabow, EY’s U.S. Venture Capital lead.

In his comments on pre-seed, seed and post-seed deals, something stood out to us — a prediction of sorts. Here’s Grabow:

[Q1 2021] was a strong quarter for pre-seed funding when you compare it to prior years, and we expect the overall environment to remain strong given the abundance of capital available and plethora of investable themes that tap into new markets via technological solutions. It paints a rosy picture for the post-COVID environment.

That tracks with our internal estimates. Q1 2021 was so hot for at least American venture capital activity (expect more international coverage soon) that it seems likely that the year itself will be a record in many respects. Provided that things don’t slow too much, records will be broken. And here Grabow flat-out anticipates a pretty attractive climate for venture after COVID-19 is behind us.

So, records will be broken. The question is by how much.

More notes on Coinbase’s direct listing

Not to whomp the equestrian deceased too much, but I have a few more notes for you on the Coinbase direct listing.

Public.com, the Robinhood consumer trading rival, helped The Exchange better understand just how much retail interest there was in the stock. Per its ever-present spokesperson Mo, on April 14th, Coinbase “was the most popular stock on public,” measured by number of transactions. And perhaps more notably, on the same day “social activity (measured by the number of posts) increased by 70% compared to the day prior.”

I do not know how long the consumer trading boom can last, but that’s a pretty impressive set of metrics.

Similarweb also had a few data points to share, including that visits to coinbase.com reached 86.4 million in January. Hot damn. And during that month new visitors bested returning visitors. That data helps explain how Coinbase wound up with the epic first quarter that it did. Now the question is if it can keep up its bull run or, frankly, if consumer interest in trading in crypto specifically will outlast the equities trading boom or not.

Coinbase Series D lead investor Tom Loverro, who we’ve mentioned a few times this week, including on the podcast, said that we’re still merely in the second inning of crypto. So expect these topics to keep coming up again and again. And again.

Various and sundry

Trying to actually stick to our word count target for once, here are some final notes on the IPO market from the week.

First, the AppLovin IPO did not go according to plan. After modestly pricing at $80 per share, the middle of its range, the mobile-app focused tech company saw its value fall during its first two days’ trading. It’s now worth $61 per share as of the end of Friday.

The Exchange spoke with AppLovin CFO Herald Chen on its IPO day. Chatting with the finance executive, our read from the conversation is that the company could accelerate its acquisition game more now that it is public. Having a liquid stock means that it can be even more acquisitive than before. And AppLovin claims that it can buy companies, run them through its business process, and juice their revenues per its S-1 filing.

If that bears out, the public markets may be giving the company a bit too hard of a time. It was a bit odd to see a software company struggle post-IPO in today’s climate.

Chen also told The Exchange that his firm didn’t see any pushback regarding its multi-class share structure during its roadshow. The multi-class share miasm is something I’ve written about with our own Ron Miller. The CFO did note that no single person has complete control of the company, even with several different classes of equity with disparate voting rights. That matters, frankly.

We’ll keep tabs on AppLovin as it trades. (Our earlier coverage of its numbers is here.)

Finally, autonomous trucking company TuSimple went public this week, and Similarweb filed to go public. We’re also watching the broader IPO market as UiPath either raises its price range or note. We have a guess on that score.

And just as the week was closing, Squarespace dropped its S-1. Notes here with more to come.

Good vibes and nothing other than the best from here,

Alex

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