As a 25-year technology marketer and advisor to dozens of technology start-ups, occupying the CEO mantle of an innovative fusion company is as spectacular as anything I could have imagined at this point in my career and life. Working with three leading physicists and some of the world’s best fusion-computation specialists provides a window into factors and opportunities that are new to me, despite my long years in technology (and that, too, at some of the most successful companies in the space).
Of these factors, four stand out:
- Fusion is primarily a scientific pursuit in which technology plays a very important role. Brilliant scientists must work in unison with brilliant technologists and engineers.
- Fusion proceeds at a pace that evolutionary biologists would call a “punctuated equilibrium” and as such the associated timelines are foreign to the garden-variety tech-investor.
- Private Fusion requires heavy governmental support, even while maintaining agility and nimbleness.
- Too many private fusion companies seek to vertically integrate instead of nourishing an ecosystem of suppliers and vendors.
These observations serve equally as admonitions, spurred by my recognition of worn patterns that could lead private fusion astray. Let’s look at each in turn.
1. Fusion is primarily a scientific pursuit in which technology plays a very important role.
Fusion is, as ExoFusion’s Chief Scientific Advisor Dr. Swadesh Mahajan says, a “quintessentially scientific enterprise”—there appears to be the dangerous tendency to conform to the culture of the technology industry.
At a high-level fusion conference in London recently, several marketing executives at the podium referred to their respective companies’ “Chief Technology Officers” and made nary a mention of their Chief Scientists. In the same vein, the head of a large private fusion company was quoted in the press saying that commercially viable fusion has been reduced to an “engineering problem.” These emanations are understandable—technology and engineering both are keys to the success of Commercially Viable Fusion (CVF)—but the technology scenarios will be dictated by the science of maximum output, especially in the area of confinement.
The technology positivist tendency to reduce all problems to “technology” is one that will not work in fusion. A fusion plasma is a paradigmatic example of a “complex system” capable of many kinds of undesirable behaviour, powered by enormous energy density. Without the scientific understanding of these behaviours, capital-intensive engineering-only projects attempting to “contain the beast” will likely fail. Synergies are needed, not silos. Furthermore, this synergy must be led by scientific possibility and not the constraints imposed by current engineering.
Let’s try to continually emphasise the scientific dynamism inherent in fusion and not attempt to reduce Commercially Viable Fusion to an engineering or technology problem; the latter won’t bear fruit.
2. Fusion timelines are foreign to the garden-variety tech-investor
Technology investors expect a specific timeline and set of milestones as they “govern” the companies they invest in. But one size doesn’t fit all. Fusion’s grail “Q” was growing faster than Moore’s Law but is still not extrapolatable to Commercially Viable Fusion. The canonical Wall-Street timeline forces fusion CEOs to seemingly invent milestones and, worse, make false promises. The fact is that many of these companies are making progress—in some cases ground-breaking progress—and, in that process, helping the ecosystem. But hyperbole and false promises are good for no one.
Furthermore, “Scientific Q” is not the same as “Commercial Q”.
The good news is that fusion start-ups are making huge leaps; the bad news is that “Big Fusion” projects still ingest the preponderance of fusion investments.
Let’s try to, as a community come to a common understanding of timelines and milestones and educate the entire investor ecosystem on the differences between the fusion business and the B2B software business, for instance.
3. Private Fusion *requires* heavy governmental support, even while maintaining agility and nimbleness.
There is a tendency in the technology industry to suggest that, to put in crudely, “private good, government bad”. Nothing could be further from the truth—either in tech but particularly in science-based companies, which require patient gestation and adhere to non-linear timelines.
Government support, in terms of education, grants, partnerships, subsidies and marketing support, is essential and also fitting for fusion, given the enormous societal benefit of abundant, clean, baseload power.
Let’s try to avoid the language so common in the technology industry that pits industry versus government versus celebrating the necessary partnership.
4. Too many private fusion companies seek to vertically integrate instead of nourishing an ecosystem of suppliers and vendors.
Fourth, many private fusion companies seek to “vertically integrate” versus understanding basic concepts of comparative advantage. This is driven at times by secrecy, at times by arrogance, and at times by the sheer reluctance to understand just how complicated the Commercially Viable Fusion endeavor is.
Let’s try to develop business models that lower the walls of collaboration and allow for the basic application of comparative advantage.
Fusion is in a Renaissance. It is exciting to be part of this potentially fundamental industry. Heeding warnings is wise, as is learning which elements of other industries to emulate and which to avoid.