Nuclear Heats up at Annual MIT VC Conference

on December 18, 2013 at 4:00 PM

Germany Seeks Permanent Nuclear Waste Storage Site

The annual MIT Venture Capital conference is a summit where VCs from Menlo Park to Boston come together and present their views on the next hottest startup investments to eager MBA students, entrepreneurs, and fellow investors. As global leaders in engineering and technology, it’s no surprise that MIT has always been a pillar for energy industry development, but sandwiched in between the latest apps and social media platforms, energy investment took center stage at Friday’s conference.

The energy panel, moderated by Angelique Mercurio, Founder of Energy Solutions Forum, focused on how Venture Capital investment can promote game-changing technology in the energy industry. The energy panelists – Dhiraj Malkani of Rockport Capital, Brendan McCord of Lux Capital Management, Steve Crane, CEO of LightSail Energy, and Matthew Nordan of Venrock – offered a diverse examination of what they believe “the next big thing” is, but all agreed that energy is the industry where investors and entrepreneurs have the biggest opportunity to effect lasting change. Nordan noted the gravity of the current global energy landscape, warning that current geopolitics place us at risk of a resource war within this century. Thoughts on the biggest opportunities included energy storage, data-driven software solutions, and investing the $600 billion in capital currently held in family funds into energy.

Following the energy panel, the conference’s first keynote speaker shared his perspective in putting that family office capital to work: Ray Rothrock, a managing partner at Venrock, the venture capital arm of the Rockefeller family office, has always had a strong focus on energy and infrastructure investments. As Rothrock’s presentation unfolded, it became clear that his focus wasn’t just the energy industry in general, but a very clearly articulated and impassioned view of nuclear energy and its huge world-changing potential. A nuclear engineer by training, Rothrock used props to illustrate his point: Holding up chunk of uranium followed by a cereal-box sized container of laundry detergent called Borox, which contains Boron, demonstrating to his audience how little of the chemical is needed to generate electricity.

In a setting like MIT, the Q&A session proved very lively, with questions and comments from audience members who were personally driving forward the nuclear engineering lab work Rothrock speaks of. Many students brought up the anti-nuclear sentiment that still lingers in the US and abroad in the wake of such widely publicized disasters and shutdowns in the past 35 years. This sentiment makes nuclear an unpopular with politicians who don’t want to be seen as supporting nuclear. His advice? Don’t re-elect those politicians. But even in a politically supportive environment, he was clear that intelligent capital investments with long-term perspectives are the only way to drive enduring results. Citing the relationship between Nikola Tesla and his benefactor JP Morgan, he believes that the investment community needs to wake up. Instead of looking for 3x return in 3 years, they need to focus on a 100x return in 10 years, the former a perverse and misguided perspective that currently pervades in the VC universe.

A mere few hours before Rothrock took the stage, it was announced that the DOE granted $216 million in small scale nuclear reactor development, a rare move even for the DOE.  Could this be a sign of a shift in popular sentiment? Nuclear stealing the show at a VC conference may mean energy is indeed poised to be the next hot investment opportunity, with a potentially bigger target market than Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook combined.

December 16, 2013 via Energy Solutions Forum

Energy Solutions Forum is an energy policy research and data company based in New York City. Follow @EnergySolForum for policy research and stay plugged in with ESF Calendar, the industry’s go-to resource for energy business events in and around NYC.