The Future of Energy Technology Begins with Investing in Innovators Today

July 19, 2018

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a photo of two men standing in front of a small lake.
Sam Shaner (left) and Matt Ellis (right), co-founders of Yellowstone Energy, are fellows in an Energy Department lab-embedded entrepreneurship program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Photo: Yellowstone Energy LP

Growing up near nuclear plants and with an interest in nuclear energy, it’s no wonder Sam Shaner and Matthew Ellis, who first met six years ago as doctoral classmates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, would form a friendship. It turned out to be the beginning of a partnership that would lead them to many successes along the way.

In mid-2016, the duo decided to start Yellowstone Energy - a company focused on the development of a modular, safe, and economically advanced nuclear reactor.“We wanted to find more options around the design of a nuclear reactor that had a shorter and less expensive pathway to market,” said Shaner. The Yellowstone Energy reactor is designed to reduce overnight construction costs via a simplified and passively safe design and provides additional grid services to improve the economic competitiveness of nuclear power in the United States.

Ellis and Shaner began working in earnest while still completing their doctorates. They received initial funding from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program, which paved the way for them to file for intellectual property protection on the core enabling technology for their reactor design. The support from MIT sandbox allowed them to focus on obtaining larger funding opportunities to develop their innovative technology. But even after celebrating these milestones, Yellowstone Energy continued to face the same challenges many energy innovators and entrepreneurs experience - how to take their idea, transform it into a technology or service, and create a pathway to the marketplace.

The transfer of hardware-based technologies to the private sector is stifled by lengthy development cycles and lack of access to capital investment, scientific tools and facilities, and entrepreneurial know-how. Given the inherent challenges in the energy and manufacturing sectors, there are currently very few opportunities for entrepreneurial researchers to drive innovative ideas to product, thus limiting our overall economic return on research and development (R&D) investment.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) invests in energy technologies to create jobs and grow the national economy. From funding and financing opportunities to helping small businesses work with the Energy Department, it’s leading the charge to create more energy jobs by building partnerships across a variety of proven and next-era technologies.

In 2016, Ellis and Shaner applied to participate in a DOE lab-embedded entrepreneurship program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Knoxville, Tennessee. They were selected for ORNL’s “Innovation Crossroads (IC),” a program that embeds top technical talent within national labs as entrepreneurial research fellows with the express goal of subsequently launching businesses. The added value to a DOE program participant often comes from building relationships and the mentoring they receive. “We’ve learned a lot from participating in the IC program. It has given us access to resources we didn’t have before such as key subject matter experts,” said Ellis. “With this program, we’ve been able to study some challenging aspects of our technology and receive help in analyzing certain aspects of a nuclear reactor.” Ellis and Shaner are half way through the program and hope to work on the refinement of the detailed reactor design based on improved performance metrics.

With one DOE funding opportunity underway, Yellowstone Energy received yet another bonus. Last month, DOE announced up to $24 million in funding for 10 projects as part of a new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program: Modeling-Enhanced Innovations Trailblazing Nuclear Energy Reinvigoration (MEITNER). MEITNER teams will identify and develop innovative technologies that enable designs for lower-cost, safer, advanced nuclear reactors. Yellowstone Energy and its teaming partners will receive almost $2.6 million from the program to further advance the enabling technology behind Yellowstone Energy’s reactor design.

Energy and manufacturing drive economic growth and job creation in America, and technology innovation is critical to expansion and competitiveness in these key sectors. Now with assistance from two DOE-funded programs, Yellowstone Energy is turbo-charged to further its product to maturity for application.