For two weeks this August, students from around the world gathered at UC Berkeley for the first ever Nuclear Innovation Bootcamp. The goal? To train the next generation of nuclear professionals to generate ideas and solve problems with significant real-world impact.
Though nuclear energy is poised to meet many of the grand challenges of our time, reactors in the United States and around the world are struggling. New approaches are required to fulfill the nuclear promise of clean, abundant energy. However, the nuclear energy industry does not have a reputation for being agile. “I went to innovation events, and everyone was confused why there was a nuclear engineer there,” said Dr. Rachel Slaybaugh, an assistant professor in the Nuclear Engineering department here at UC Berkeley and the principle organizer of the Bootcamp. “It was a laugh line, and the audience laughed,” write Bootcamp organizers Kathy Shield and Caroline Hughes about Dr. Slaybaugh’s remarks. “But why?” .
In recent years, many startup companies have set out to design advanced nuclear reactors. Novel approaches to reactor design, as well as to regulation and financing models, could make the nuclear renaissance a reality. Despite this, most nuclear engineering curricula do not offer material about innovation and entrepreneurship. We need more startups and creative thinkers to catalyze change in the industry like those that have so famously transformed Silicon Valley.
Enter the Nuclear Innovation Bootcamp. The Bootcamp brought students together with executives from new companies in nuclear and business professionals with expertise in startups and innovation. The twenty-five students came from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and disciplines including non-engineering fields. I was fortunate to be one of those students!
Over the two-week Bootcamp, we were immersed in the world of product development, venture capital, energy markets, regulations, and politics. Speakers gave presentations and sat on expert panels, sharing their expertise and experiences with us and answering our many questions. We also split into teams to work on design projects. With guidance from mentors, we applied our new knowledge on nuclear innovation to develop companies that would benefit nuclear energy. The Bootcamp culminated in a public event, “Upending the Future” where our teams presented a 5-minute pitch to a panel of five judges consisting of university professors and potential investors. The proposals varied widely, including technical solutions, operational improvements, and consulting firms.
My team created a company called Auzel Technologies (pronounced ‘oh-zel’). Our mission was to harness energy from nuclear waste. We had difficulty deciding how to pursue such a broad mandate but eventually settled on a design to convert the infrared radiation emitted as heat from nuclear waste into electricity. Through the experience, the most important thing I learned was that vision is key to being a good entrepreneur with a good pitch. Investors and customers want to know “why?”, not “how?”. Our company’s vision was that if we could turn that waste heat into electricity, we could offer nuclear facilities a reliable and uninterruptable source of power that could offset energy costs and serve as a “backup-backup” source of energy in the event of an accident.
In all, the Bootcamp was a resounding success. Feedback from all participants – students, speakers, and organizers – was overwhelmingly positive and the event sparked a maelstrom of activity on social media. Three of the five student companies were contacted about commercializing their ideas. The organizers hope to plan another event next year, potentially expanding from two to six weeks and inviting even more students. The Bootcamp, a startup in its own right, demonstrated to us and the world by example that with the right vision and people, successful entrepreneurship is possible in nuclear energy.
Anyone interested in participating as a student, speaker, mentor, or supporter should contact the organizers a nuclearinnovationbootcamp [at] gmail.com.
For more information, visit:
 K. Shield and C. Hughes, “Bootcamp Catalyzes Industry-wide Innovation Conversation.” American Nuclear Society (ANS) Cafe Blog, 2016 http://ansnuclearcafe.org/2016/09/02/bootcamp-catalyzes-industry-wide-innovation-conversation/#sthash.9KiSDMYE.dpbs