(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third article in a four-part series spotlighting the “Innovation Crossroads” initiative at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Founders of the three companies that relocated to the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region to grow their energy-focused start-ups.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
The two Co-Founders of Yellowstone Energy are from opposite ends of the country, so it was fortuitous that they met as doctoral classmates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, better known as MIT.
In spite of that geographic diversity, both shared something in common – growing-up near nuclear plants, and it is that interest in nuclear energy that has brought them to Oak Ridge National Laboratory as part of the inaugural “Innovation Crossroads” (IC) program.
Sam Shaner, who hails from San Luis Obispo, CA, was raised in the shadows of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, while Matt Ellis grew-up in Lancaster, PA, not far from Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station.
“We’ve always wanted to have an impact on the commercial nuclear industry,” Ellis says. “When we first had the idea and realized that it was uniquely capable of addressing needs within the nuclear industry, we decided that we had to form a venture around it.”
Shaner recalls the day that the duo decided to focus on the idea that has brought them to ORNL.
“It was June 3 of 2016,” he says. “I told Matt we needed to start a company around this idea.”
What’s the idea? It’s an advanced nuclear reactor with the potential for faster and lower-cost deployment, at the same time, optimizing safety in order to provide a clean source of baseload electricity.
“Our approach to nuclear innovation is unique,” Shaner says. “We are using a commercially proven and available nuclear fuel and leveraging technologies used in other fields (chemical and solar industries). We’re focused on building the enabling technologies to bring these existing technologies together into a safe and commercially viable reactor.”
They filed for a patent on this enabling technology last month.
With so much interest locally in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), we asked the Yellowstone Energy team to explain how it differs from their technology.
“Our approach builds on the momentum behinds SMRs, but differs from current designs through the use of a high temperature coolant that enables increased thermal efficiency and safety margins,” Ellis said. Shaner added that their concept includes additional operational flexibility not found in current SMR designs which enables the deployment of their design in energy markets with high renewable electricity penetration.
Once the duo decided in mid-2016 to start Yellowstone Energy, they began working in earnest while still completing their doctorates. They received initial funding from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund.
In late-2016, they applied for IC and were thrilled when offered an opportunity to work with the scientist at ORNL. “Oak Ridge was the ideal place to continue developing our reactor design,” Shaner said.
“We knew Oak Ridge had great technical capabilities,” Ellis said, adding, “it’s been amazing how accessible the scientists and experts have been. The generosity of time has been great. We’ve benefitted from a lot of good advice.”
Yellowstone Energy envisions continued collaboration after IC with ORNL and local nuclear energy focused companies.
“While in the Innovation Crossroads program, we’ve focused on addressing key technology challenges unique to our design.” Ellis says. “Resolving these key technology challenges at ORNL enables an advanced reactor concept that has a commercially viable path to market.”
After that phase of their work, the team will move onto detailed designs and leverage ORNL’s expertise in modeling and simulation.
With the need for venture capital to get to commercial production, Ellis and Shaner know there will be a pull to relocate to one of the typical venture capital hubs. That might require some physical presence elsewhere, but Ellis says Yellowstone Energy sees this region being a part of its future.
“It’s impossible to think of getting to the endgame without having a continuing presence here,” he says.
NEXT: SkyNano Technologies, founded by a Vanderbilt University student.